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Gender in the Merovingian World

Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

To every one of the people who was accidentally or on purpose was behind the 90,000 or so hits H.o.t.E. has had during 2011.  I hope you find the site equally interesting in 2012 when it will, I expect, remain as controversial as ever - if perhaps in a more judiciously-expressed fashion.  Certainly I don't intend to let up on my exposure and critique of hypocrisy and humbug among the undeservedly over-privileged.  If this means more criticism of the moral and intellectual laziness of past and present products/members of what will henceforth be referred to here as The Old Boys High School, well so be it.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Good King Chilperic? (again)

Chilperic and Fredegund
About ten years ago I wrote a piece about Gregory of Tours and Chilperic I of Neustria - usually regarded as Gregory's model 'bad king':

‘Nero and Herod? The death of Chilperic and Gregory of Tours’ writing of history.’ The World of Gregory of Tours, ed. K. Mitchell and I.N. Wood, (Brill; Leiden, 2002), pp.337-50. ISBN 90-04-11034-8.

Here I argued that the negative image of Chilperic belongs entirely to Histories 6.46 and after, in other words to the portion written during the supremacy of Guntramn of Burgundy of whom, I argued, Gregory really was afraid.  Before 6.46, Gregory's image of Chilperic is fairly positive; he criticises and praises in a broadly consistent fashion.

Anyway, be all that as it may, today I was looking at this post in Steve Muhlberger's excellent blog and as a result (and also because, as luck would have it, the MGH edition of Gregory's Histories was open at more or less exactly the right page on my desk) I had another look at Histories 7.2.  This is a hugely interesting passage for all sorts of reasons, such as the fighting between the men of Blois, Chateaudun, Orleans and Chartres (which I think is a part of Guntramn grabbing a piece of the newly deceased Chilperic's kingdom, but let's leave that to one side for now).  What caught my attention was the opening phrase, and the accompanying note in Krusch and Levison's edition:
Defuncto igitur Chilperico inventamque tam diu quesierat mortem ... (Chilperic thus having died, having found the death which he had sought so long...)

Now, Thorpe's (in)famous Penguin classics translation renders this as 'No sooner was Chilperic dead, he having met the fate for which he had been asking so long..."  This isn't a bad rendition and once again we would seem to have more evidence of the outpouring of venom which some have thought Gregory now felt he could write, his 'pet hate' (in Wallace-Hadrill's words) being dead - or as I would (have) prefer(ed) - an attention-grabbing but superficial phrase condemning the Neustrian king, but written to appease Guntramn. 

However, Krusch and Levison's note 3 refers to S. Hellmann comparing the Latin with the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse of John) 9.6: Et in diebus illis quaerent homines mortem et non inveniant eam (And in those days men will seek death and they will not find it).  The idea that Gregory had this phrase in mind when he wrote this passage seems reasonable but if it was a deliberate evocation of that passage then more reflection is worthwhile and interesting.  The next sentence of Revelation says something like 'men will desire death but death will fly from them' - all this being in the context of huge locusts being released after the breaking of the fifth seal, and these locusts being tasked with torturing men but not killing them.  Indeed, just before Chilperic's death, Gregory says a huge plague of locusts descended on part of Gaul (Histories 6.44)...  But let us think on.  Here we have locusts terrorising Gaul and a verbal invocation of the Book of Revelation and the torturing of men.  However, Chilperic finds the death he sought.  Does this actually mean that Chilperic was released from the torments of life?  I think it is worth pondering whether Gregory's phrase, which looks superficially like a condemnation of the dead king (and I assume was meant to look that way) was, again, a covert phrase of - if not praise - then at least of more neutral thinking about the old rascal.  I think Gregory had come to think that Chilperic was not all bad, or at least that he had been savable (compare his vision of the dead king in Book VIII).  Possibly there is a hint of melancholic reflection on the murdered king here?

Germanist Quote of the Week #1

"The irresponsible, and more than despotic authority vested by the Roman laws in the father over the son, was thoroughly repugnant to the Visigothic conception of justice and freedom, which had been transmitted through many generations of barbarian ancestors."
From S.P. Scott's* notes to his translation of the Visigothic Forum Iudicum.  Hurrah for S.P.!  I expect this sort of thing is still taught at Strand Community College.

* His real name as I am sure his heirs and assigns are unlikely to sue...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A Change of Practice

Yesterday I was sent (by this blogger) an interesting piece about English law as it relates to blogging (here).  So, to avoid any further run-ins with the authorities, potential embarrassments to my kindly employers and so on, outside my formal academic pieces (articles, lecture scripts, etc.), in ‘discursive’ posts no personal names will henceforth be employed.  Instead a system of links and allusions will have to suffice.  Over time, with luck, this will evolve into a complex code which only H.o.t.E. aficionados will understand and be able to employ.  This will consequently turn this site into an unholy on-line fusion of Private Eye and a kind of Virtual Oxbridge High Table.  This, naturally, as it doesn't take a genius to figure out, represents the pinnacle of all my secret, repressed desires.

Friday, 9 December 2011

A Query About the Socially-Embedded Economy

If I want to avoid the word 'gift' - because I don't think that the exchange of objects or food in return for alliance/service/reciprocal bestowals counts as a gift - what word could I use that would be better?  Any advice appreciated.  I haven't, btw, read the most recent Davies/Fouracre collaborative opus.

Whilst we're on the subject...

... Of being able to protest peacefully without being sabred by the yeomanry, you might be interested to read this quite worrying piece.  Worrying not least because the type of target that such weaponry would be useful against would not be rioters and looters but large fairly static crowds, like, say, anti-cuts or pro-public-sector-workers marches.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Dark Day for British History

Here you can read about the University of Birmingham obtaining a court injunction criminalising any occupation or sit-in protest anywhere on its 250-acre campus during the next 12 months.  That's right.  A British University has outlawed peaceful protest on its grounds.  Leave aside, for a minute, the general implications of that - there are ample good points made in the article.  What this means is that at a time of unprecedented attacks on Higher Education students are barred by University management from making peaceful protest. 

Consider too, the historical struggle that people had to open up access to higher education in the UK; consider the historical struggles waged to earn British people the right to protest without getting sabred by the yeomanry.  Now consider the fact that the V-C of Birmingham University rose through the ranks as a historian.  I don't know whether he still thinks of himself as an historian; his profile makes scant mention of his historical credentials, except seemingly as a past phase he went through, and the only publications referred to are policy documents and speeches.

Whatever.  Speaking just for myself, if this report is accurate and if Birmingham's V-C is behind his University's legal actions - and it's difficult to believe that, as V-C, he isn't - then I think that, whether or not he does still think of himself as a historian (supremely ironically, one who used to teach Chartism and Marxist theory), his actions ought to shame the British academic historical profession.  In my own view, this would be a disgraceful thing for anyone to do at any time, but it is especially so during this year of all years. This year non-violent protests have occurred through the world and often been violently repressed.  Our governments have mouthed support for these protests and yet here we are, in the Free West, with a seat of learning threatening with the force of the law peaceful student protesters (protesting about issues that affect them, the future of UK Higher Education). 

My own view is that it is especially regrettable that a historian should be behind this - and, I assume, a pretty good historian too since he has a chair in the subject.  As I have argued repeatedly in this blog, there is an ethical demand at the core of historical research and I think it says nothing good when no attempt is made to bear that demand in the present, outside one's research into the safely dead past.  Having a historian behind it sheds a bad light on this affair not just because Birmingham's V-C knows about the events of nineteenth-century British social history, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the rest, but because I assume that he had to engage with the writings by and about those movements in what (as I have argued before) is inevitably a humane, ethical fashion.  That is why, as a professional historian, I feel ashamed that this action should have been taken by a fellow historian.  OK, I can imagine various scenarios in which a threat of legal action might be a useful negotiating point with protesters on campus and it's possible of course that the Guardian article hides some nuance of this sort, but whatever scenario I envisage in a UK university with UK students, all this looks horribly heavy-handed and unnecessary.

So, overall, I say to Birmingham's V-C shame on you.  Shame on you.  Perhaps you have been badly advised.  I hope you can see that this was a mistake, reconsider it and rescind this action as soon as you can.  Sheffield backed down on their similar injunction, after all.

Otherwise, pepper spray, anyone?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Remember when...

... I wrote this in April this year?:
If the AHRC refuses to budge of the issue of The Big Society within its funding priorities, it will not be long before we hear that, because ‘it won’t go away’, there are various things ‘that we already do’ that ‘can easily be put under that heading’. Mark my words. You heard it here first.

Well, today I received a CFP for this conference.  This is how the cells work to further the government agenda. Like I said, you heard it here first.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Disappointed but not, alas, Surprised. Reflections on The Strike (In which I have a go at the Conservatives, the Labour Party, Jeremy Clarkson and the Unions, so something here for everyone.]

I went on strike last Wednesday (30th) – so let’s get the obvious gags out of the way first, shall we?  Was anyone able to tell the difference?  (Ho ho!)  That will have brought the capitalist world to its knees! (Ha ha!)  I quipped that I was going to tell the Leverhulme that I had been on strike so they could dock Tom Pickles a day’s pay.  (Hee hee!) 

I’m not normally in favour of strikes by my union (UCU) although that is a locally-ethical or tactical stance rather than a statement of a general principle.  On this occasion, though, I felt that solidarity with other public sector workers was necessary and important. 

More interestingly, perhaps, I went on the march in York.  It was well attended and it got a lot of support, with many cars pipping their horns in support and many bystanders applauding the march as it passed.  I heard of only one shout of ‘get back to work’ – I’m not sure who by, clearly someone in one of those hard-pressed ‘going shopping or otherwise wandering about in York town centre’ jobs.  There were good supportive speeches from private sector workers at the end, striking a further blow against the tactics that the government and its media allies have used.  All that was very encouraging.  Indeed it confirmed what the polls were saying about the strength of support for the strike across the country (even in a Daily Mail poll, amazingly).

All that apart, though, the overwhelming sensation I had with the debate around the strike was of disappointment.   Obviously I’m not surprised by the general unpleasantness of the government’s response.  They could be predicted to get their media friends (unelected people on massive wages, by the way, employing nasty people to intrude into and often wreck people’s lives) to vilify the strikers as lazy and try to foment a rift between the private and public sectors.  It is still disappointing though.  Disappointing too to hear Michael Gove coming out with statements about how this was a time for us all to pull together.  Surely all that ‘we’re all in this together’ stuff must ring hollow even in Tory Central Office’s propaganda department by now, it’s so obviously, transparently untrue – revealed by their blocking of real bank reform, the snivelling refusal to chase down tax-evasion and tax-avoidance by big corporations and the super-rich the grumbling about the 50% tax bracket, the blocking of a Robin Hood Tax, the continuing huge bank bonuses and executive pay-rises, and so on and so forth. 

Disappointing, but not surprising, that so many people appear to have been taken in with this rhetoric.  Yet, as the strike made clear, this was not merely about protecting allegedly gold-plated public-sector pensions; it was about protecting fairpensions for all.  Those comparing the public with the private sector to disparage the former have the telescope the wrong way round.  The issue is not that the public sector have it so good as much as that the private sector have it so bad.  Why do they have it so bad?  Because their bosses have cut back responsible, fair pension provision at the expense of vast executive pay-rises, shareholder bonuses etc.  Want to complain about the inadequacy private sector pensions?  Then get with the movement for taxation and banking reform.  Don’t try and bring the public sector down too.  That is the Conservative magnate class’ classic divide and rule tactic.

Nonetheless, it was not surprising, but still disappointing, to hear Jeremy Clarkson making his usual bullying ‘jokes’ about taking the strikers out and shooting them in front of their families, asking ‘how dare’ they strike with their gilt-edged pensions, etc. 

Let’s get this straight, shall we?  First, Jeremy Clarkson is NOT just an ordinary bloke like you; he went to Repton, the expensive public school; mummy (especially) and daddy bought him his education and his opportunities.  Clarkson is no more than one of those deeply unpleasant public school boys who occasionally make it into the national papers for their University Conservative Association antics, like burning Obama in effigy or making anti-semitic, racist, sexist comments/stunts.  And who, when confronted about their behaviour, retreat into mealy-mouthed claims that it was just a joke, a bit of fun, some banter.  At Poppleton University Department of History we, sadly enough, have more than enough of this sort.  They are rarely very bright.  Here is one of our distinguished old boys…  Clarkson is no different … except that, on the basis of being an independently wealthy, better-than-average, moderately witty car-reviewer (and that’s all he is, remember) he has gained access to an audience of millions.  Three million delusionals have even joined a Facebook group saying he should be Prime Minister.  Second, and related to my last comment, let’s remember that – apart from his inheritance – Clarkson’s wealth comes overwhelmingly from the opportunities afforded him by the publicly-funded BBC and its license-payers.  Third, how dare he set himself up as some sort of working man?  What’s his job?  Messing about with expensive cars at the license-payer’s expense.  Not that, with his inherited wealth, he needs to work at all, mind.  And yet, although he thinks it bad form to discuss his own money, he can go on air and state that he thinks people should be shot for demanding that they get a fair deal.  Fourth, at the front of our march were the reps of the Fire Brigades Union.  It is likely that these were from the very branch that sent the men who cut Clarkson’s friend and coat-holding side-kick Richard ‘the Hamster’ (he’s not even a real hamster) Hammond out of a tree when he drove (at the license-payer’s expense) a super-fast car into it.  Yet, according to Clarkson, these are the people who should be taken out and shot in front of their families. They should indeed - for not leaving Hammond swinging in his tree.  Hey!  It’s just a joke, Jeremy!  Who looked after Hammond afterwards, in emergency and later?  Oh, that’ll be the public sector health service for the most part.  I guess they ought to be shot too, eh, Jeremy?  For not leaving him brain-damaged.  After all, who knew he had a brain to damage?  Just a joke!  And who did all the proceeds from the book sold by Hammond on the back of his heart-warming near-death-crash-and-recovery-experience go?  That’s right, they went to the public sector workers – oh no, my mistake – they went to Hammond and his private-sector publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicholson (as Stewart Lee said; he didn’t even have the decency to publish it through the BBC).

Well, I don’t think Clarkson should be taken out and shot in front of his family; I think his family should be taken out and shot in front of him!  Hey!  It’s just a joke, Jeremy.

So, Clarkson’s irresponsible and unpleasant.  Disappointing but not surprising.  Disappointing, but not surprising, were the responses.  Unison’s predictable threat to sue just plays into his hands.  All those people (Cameron included) who played it down as just a silly joke, or as just ‘winding people up’ – it’s disappointing but not surprising that they don’t understand the power-relations involved in this sort of ‘joke’, and not even a very funny one in any case, let’s be honest.  Was it even a joke?  When rich and powerful people with access to an audience of millions make hateful comments about the people they are exploiting, that is not ‘just the same’ as when members of a Facebook group make equally ill-advised equally (in the abstract) hateful comments about the super-rich who are exploiting them.  When (objectively) the same joke is exchanged between groups of widely different social, cultural, political and economic power, that is not reciprocity.  When used by a member of a group that has the power to use jokes to create attitudes on the back of which real prejudice and violence can ensue, to reinforce the status quo, that is not just the same as when a member of the target of such a jibe makes the same sort of gag back, as resistance, as a defence, as a means of creating solidarity.  So, when a white comedian makes jokes about black people that is not just the same as when a black comedian makes jokes about white people (even if both jokes are ‘objectively’ ill-advised and offensive). 

The power of Grey Skull
Disappointing but not surprising that Tory climate-change-denier and Skeletor-look-alike, James Delingpole just doesn’t get it.  Have a read of Delingpole, if you can stomach it.  Against the evidence of public support such as I witnessed, and against the evidence of the polls, Delingpole constructs his argument about how the Left lost on the basis of an extrapolation from an anecdotal piece of evidence from Jeremy Vine about callers to his radio show.  Callers who, like Delingpole, are missing the point (made above) about having the telescope the wrong way round in comparing private and public sectors; callers who have fallen for Tory divide and rule tactics.  Delingpole, ironically, thinks he is ‘always right’ and writes books about how to win arguments.  Here, incidentally (with thanks to Jonathan Grove), you can see a fine example of Delingpole showing us just how to win an argument.  What, apparently, this involves is spluttering and then retreating into huffing and bluster when someone interrupts your rant with a pertinent question exposing your approach as the nonsense that it is.  Nice work.  Read the puerile description of himself on his blog and his own web-page; this is someone only a year younger than me.  This is the best, apparently, that the Right can do, by way of public intellectuals.  But I digress...

Many would say that this gives Clarkson more space and attention than he deserves, but I think his (and his like’s) role in British culture and ideology is quite important, and there were general points that I wanted to make.  Much more importantly, it was disappointing but, once again, not surprising that the gutless so-called Labour Party was notable by its absence on 30 November.  It failed actively to support the strike; indeed back in June it even condemned it.  That’s right, we have a Labour Party, a Labour Party (in Neil Kinnock accent), that will condemn public-sector workers for taking action to protect their futures (and those of generations to come).  This, as far as I am concerned, completes Ed Milliband’s and Labour’s move into complete political irrelevance.  For the past 15 years under Smith, Blair (unsurprisingly – he was a public school boy with no stake in the state; no privately-educated person can ever really be a socialist any more) and even Brown, the Labour Party has become little more than an excrescence, a cluster of barnacles on the hull of the Tory ideological ship, slowing it down slightly, impeding its performance possibly, but doing little actually to stop its progress.  When ‘Red Ed’ made what I thought was a good speech on the day of action against the cuts, which he did well to support, he was mocked in most of the press (most of the press being Tory-backers after all) and this seems to have spooked him and his advisers completely.  Now they are all so scared of media reaction that they have gone back to gutless Blairite triangulation of policy between what real labour supporters might want, what they think the media will say and what they think the media-influenced public will let them get away with (here is a prime example of this sort of thinking).  During the riots I criticised the poverty of political dialogue in the UK for its condemn:condone manichaeanism.  Here I think it was equally poor, but Milliband should have had the courage to support the action.

The 2010 election showed that the power of the old media is over-estimated. In spite of his slick ‘charm’ and well-managed operation, despite the support of almost all the media and almost complete lack of media support for Labour (even The Guardian supporting the LibDems), despite the bulging Tory election ‘war-chest’, despite Brown’s utter lack of charisma and foolish mistakes, despite the economic crisis and the mileage made out of the deficit myth, despite all this Cameron failed to secure a mandate.  The overwhelming support for the strike, in spite of the Tory media machine’s best efforts, shows that the days of the print media’s dominance of UK politics are over.  Hell, who even buys a newspaper these days?  Newspaper sales are at a critical low.  As a US photo, targeting a Time Magazine cover, which went viral on Facebook says: ‘You know we all have the Internet now, right?’   And yet Labour remain terrified of the 1992 spectre of it being ‘The Sun Wot Won it’ – terrified in spite of public faith in the Murdocracy being at an all-time low.  All of that concern about an over-inflated influence of old media on the 30% of the 60% and fewer who actually vote.  Most non-voters would be Labour voters; they are mostly from the least advantaged classes.  Why don’t they vote?  Because Labour and its policies are irrelevant to them; they don’t see any difference between the two.  And when Milliband fails to support the public-sector, when he fails to promise to end tuition fees – but simply to cut them to a ‘mere’ £6000 a year – when there is something in all seriousness called ‘Blue Labour’, they are absolutely right.  The problem with the calculations of Dan Hodges and his ilk is that, while they may convert some of the voters of Middle England, for each Tory-voter in Surrey converted to Blue Labour, there is another Labour party supporter switched off, who doesn’t turn out to vote or who makes a protest vote for the Greens or (in the past – I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to do it again) the LibDems.  Each Tunbridge Wells conservative persuaded to vote for New/Blue Labour is a step further towards a commitment when in power to pursue policies antithetical to the original ideals of the Labour Party: policies, in other words, acceptable to conservatives.  Another barnacle grown.  And, when that is the case, then of course large numbers of people don’t see a point in making a choice.

This rot goes through Labour from top to bottom.  It was a Labour council that recently used The Cuts as an excuse to close a local library (opened by Mark Twain) that it had been trying to close for years.  Labour have also been putting forward 19-year-old candidates (still, obviously, at University) for Parliament.  Here’s another, put forward as PPC for York Outer when only two years out of his degree, and now York council leader.  Such is Labour’s contempt for the electorate, and especially their own electorate, that people who have never worked are put forward to be the representatives of the working person.  It is symptomatic of the malaise of British politics that the two sides are now made up of essentially the same types of people, people like Blair, with no commitment to a particular political agenda, people who flipped a coin to see which side to support, which side offered them the best chance of advancement.  People barely out of college.  This is usually represented as a good thing, and maybe it is in some ways, but while I can see why an over-privileged Tory brat fresh out of university can work hard to preserve the privileges of class and wealth it is more difficult to see how someone who has done nothing except university politics and maybe an internship or two can really have a stake in left-wing politics.  There was a day when Labour MPs were ex-Union men and the Tories were land-owners and businessmen.  That was when there was a difference between the two parties.  Now they are all from the same, homogeneous mass of young, middle class, frequently Oxbridge-educated interns, PAs and PR-reps.  No wonder no one can tell the difference any more; no wonder that Labour no longer seems to have any connection with radical politics.  All this and Milliband’s statement about fees (fairer – really? – for parents and students, said he: but what about the universities and their traditionally Labour-voting staff?) are what made me recently cancel my Labour Party subs.

My unease at all this was sadly underlined by the speeches that followed the march, which, while quite good and occasionally quite rousing (actually the one made by ‘Isaac’ from ‘York Students Against the Cuts’ was one of the best, which was one of the most encouraging aspects of the day), were disappointing overall.  The UCU rep (from York college) was an embarrassment, reminding me to some extent why I voted against the AUT-NATHE merger.  He had some good points but generally he was one of those lecturers trying to be ‘down with the kids’, discourse peppered with expletives.  As you know, I’m hardly against swearing tout court – far from it – and my weariness of this character wasn’t because there were a lot of small kids in the audience (though that made me uneasy).  It was because, in a public-speaking context with a limited amount of time, a representative of the Universities and Colleges Union ought to be a mite more articulate than that.  Tactically what good does it do when people can point ironically at this as a representative of what the country’s so-called intelligentsia are like?  Or is that just me? 

Apart from that, the speeches all too often drifted back into old-fashioned ‘class war’ cliché.  Of course the Tories have unleashed a war on the poor, while protecting their rich friends.  But it’s not just the working class who are suffering; this, as OWS have put it, is a war of the 1% against the 99% and no old-style class analysis will work on that basis.  More to the point many people who (to sound briefly like a Stalinist) are ‘objectively’ working class (like some of my own family) do not self-identify as such; sometimes (like some of my own family) they even vote Tory as a means of convincing themselves and others of the fact.  Talk of the working-class ‘class war’ alienates them.  This tired old Marxist rhetoric is a tactical mistake for two reasons.  First, it alienates all those people who aren’t, or who don’t think they are, working class and who have been frightened off by years of press scaremongering about this sort of rhetoric.  Second, it allows the right-wing popular media to keep up that scaremongering and present a movement for fairness as another load of out-of-touch (here the press and the Tories will harp back to Arthur Scargill, the Soviet Union etc. etc.) hard-left extremists who want to strip you of your hard-earned cash.  And they will be able to do this at just the point when it is the ideology of capitalism that should be under attack as – obviously – failing.  For years the Left had the examples of the allegedly left-wing regimes of the USSR and Eastern Europe thrown at them as examples of ‘how socialism doesn’t work’; now we can see, from the evidence of our own eyes, not by pointing to bogey-men on the other side of an ideological fence, that ideologically-driven, greed-is-good, neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t work either.  This is when their position must be under attack.  This is when their ludicrous defence that the market fails because it wasn’t neo-liberal enough must be exposed for what it is.  What it is the structurally identical argument to that made, back in the day, by those who said that the USSR failed for not being communist enough.  Disappointing …

It is time for a different sort of radical politics with a different vocabulary.  The old party politics of Westminster are out of touch with what we might loosely call real politics – real politics of whatever political tint.  Take the Occupy movement, sure, and take the anti-war and anti-Cuts protests: these showed people on the streets together whose ‘party politics’ were diverse.  The same is true, in a different part of the political landscape, with the Countryside Alliance marches from back in the day and even, I suspect, the EDL and their opponents.  Part of the attraction of the EDL to some people (who would I suspect otherwise be Labour supporters) is the fact that, in a confusing time of economic and social uncertainty, there seems to be no party representing them, reassuring them, redirecting their anger towards the people it ought to be directed towards rather than at the Muslim scapegoat.  We return to Labour’s political irrelevance but it is clear from their failure to win a majority in spite of the best situation for their party in years, that the Conservative Party is viewed as almost as irrelevant.  Its subservience to people whose wealth lies beyond the imagination of most people cannot help but make it so, now.

A new radical politics, a new alternative to neo-liberal conservatism, does not mean either a return to old-style class-war rhetoric or continuing subservience to principle-lite Blairite power-seeking calculation and triangulation.  It ought to make use of the one universal that can bring people together, their shared humanity.  Avoiding confrontational polarities of the old sort, such a vocabulary can be contingent, ethical and politically committed.  Not ‘Us’ against ‘You’ or ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, but ‘why don’t YOU want to be with US?’  Because the ultimate ‘human’, ethical demand, the ultimate demand of the Strike, and of the Public Sector workers last Wednesday, is a simple universalising tautology: FAIR IS FAIR.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

While we're waiting...

...for me to finish my piece on The Strike, here is a marvellous piece dissecting the insufferable Michael Ignatieff.  Thanks to Steve Muhlberger for the link.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 4 of 4)

The earliest Merovingian aristocrats: the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’
[Part 3 of this article is here]

The period between the final demise of the Western Empire and the end of the first quarter of the sixth century has long been considered to form a fairly discrete chronological unit, in its first phase largely defined by a series of prestigious graves. From two of the best-known, this archaeological horizon is often known as the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’ or, from a specific form of metalwork and ornamentation, defined by the ‘polychrome’ style. When chronologies of objects were developed through typology and patterns of association, the last quarter of the fifth century and the first quarter of the sixth became known as Böhner’s Stufe I. The coherence of this phase has been confirmed by subsequent studies of other regions, refined through the use of computerised techniques.

These burials have long been the subject of discussion. The traditional reading is that they represent the leudes of Clovis, settled and granted lands in conquered territory. The dates of the burials thus represent the stages of the Frankish conquest of northern Gaul, the latter seen very much in line with the ‘moving front’ model. There is no reason to dispose of this interpretation, provided that one is clear about how one understands the power relationships involved, both between the king and the aristocrats and between the aristocrats and the remainder of the free population.

The burials of the first half of Böhner’s Stufe I are – classically – those of adult males, lavishly furnished with grave-goods: weaponry above all, but also with belt-sets (like the sword hilts decorated in particular styles), ceramics and bronze and glass vessels. Furnished inhumation (especially of male graves) had been less common in the middle quarters of the fifth century (a decline which I have associated with an uncertainty over how one displayed legitimate status in the de facto absence of the Empire but with no clear successors to that power either). With the burials of the last quarter of the fifth century, it burst back into fashion. Many of the graves under discussion are, furthermore, ‘founder graves’. Some may have been accompanied by above-ground monuments. Burial no.319 at Lavoye (département of Meuse) possibly had a barrow built above it; Childeric I’s famous grave in Tournai almost certainly did. Indeed, the relationship between burials like Lavoye 319 and Childeric’s grave has lain at the heart of the problem. Classically, the aristocratic graves, tombes de chef or Adelsgräber are seen to be copying the royal ‘mode funéraire’ established with Clovis’ interment of his father. Thus, runs the argument, when Clovis arranged for his own burial in a church (Holy Apostles, later Ste Geneviève) in Paris in 511, the Frankish aristocracy imitated this too and were interred under their own newly-founded Eigenkirche.

There are important problems with this interpretation. One is that of relative chronology. It is by no means clear that Childeric’s burial predates its ‘imitators’ – if we leave aside the universally-cited but entirely unreliable date given for Childeric’s death by Gregory of Tours, the Tournai burial has exactly the same absolute chronological indicators as Lavoye 319, for example: 474x491. Thus, when he buried his father, Clovis could have been developing a form of burial that was already being employed by local aristocrats to demonstrate their standing, but taking that demonstration to an extreme degree – as one might expect. The relative chronology of these burials and their use in establishing a political history of northern Gaul is also blurred, first, by a reliance upon Gregory of Tours’ dubious chronology of Clovis’ reign and, second, by circular arguments. Burials south of the Somme, for example, must date to after 480 because that was the date at which the Franks (to whom these burials are attributed) acquired this region; the Franks only occupied the lands south of the Somme after 480 because Frankish burials in those lands are all later than that date. When one adds the facts that the historical record provides no support for the vision of a steady, north-to-south advance of the Franks (as discussed above) and that there is no good a priori reason to assign these burials necessarily to invading Franks in any case, it becomes apparent that the traditional reading is no more than an elaborate construct. Whether Clovis started a new fashion by burying his father in this way or whether (as seems to me to be rather more likely) he employed an existing fashion in an unusually elaborate fashion to make a particularly important statement at a moment of dynastic crisis, is impossible to establish from the evidence as we have it.

Apart from issues of chronology, the ‘emulative’ nature of the late fifth- and sixth-century ‘tombes de chef’ is further questioned by the fact that such burials continue through the sixth century and even beyond, whereas Childeric’s grave is, as far as we know, unique amongst Frankish royal burials (with neither predecessors nor successors), especially if one looks more closely at cemeterial context. To found a new cemetery or a new part of a cemetery one might expect unusually lavish displays of grave-goods; that such displays were not exactly replicated in succeeding generations is not really surprising. The absence of such graves does not imply that the local aristocrats had taken to interring their dead under churches. The building of churches to serve as aristocratic mausolea does not, in any case, really take off until the seventh century whether in town or country. In the sixth century, if aristocratic burials took place under churches, they did so in the civitas-capitals and in the castra and vici, on which the pagi were centred, in other words in the administrative nodes of the kingdom.

Associated with this suggestion is the fact that, at least In Picardie, the ‘tombes de chef’ associated with the ‘Frankish conquest’ are actually away from the civitas-capitals and other centres of the region (figure 2 [This is just a net of Thiessen Polygons based on the towns of the area and laid over the distribution of burials, in the best traditions of the New Archaeology of the 1970s]). Taken together, these points shed an important light upon the nature of these early ‘aristocratic burials’. The rite of burial with grave-goods is essentially a transient display of status (or a claim to status) that requires an audience present either at the grave-side or along the route of the funerary procession. Burials in the countryside, like Lavoye 319 (in Lorraine rather than Picardie but likewise located some way from a civitas-capital) would thus represent demonstrations of status to other members of a rural community. Interestingly Françoise Vallet showed many years ago that these late fifth-century graves are, while often on different sites, found in roughly the same (thus peripheral) parts of the countryside as the late fourth- and early fifth-century lavish burials.

There are some key differences nevertheless. The changes of site or the foundation of new areas within cemeteries is one; the different forms of material culture are another. Rather than being imported from barbaricum, ultimately from the Danubian Hunnic realm, it now seems most likely that the costume represented by the grave-goods of the Flonheim-Gültlingen burials was of a more widespread later fifth-century type, using artefacts made in the Mediterranean and associated with the ‘barbarian’ late Roman armies. The ‘barbarian’ import of the costume is thus of a rather more subtle and specific form than was once thought. In a northern Gallic context, especially when one remembers the intimate connections between the Merovingians and the Loire army (demonstrated clearly enough in Childeric’s burial), such a ‘Roman-barbarian military’ identity would be associated with the Franks. Nonetheless, the material’s association with a new political order seems clear, as is further underlined by the fact that this material tends to appear in burials only from c.475, and thus the precise moment that the western Empire was dissolved, de facto if not de jure. Another difference between the graves of ‘Stufe I’ and those of the late fourth-/early fifth-century ‘horizon’ is that the former are overwhelmingly the burials of adult males.

If we take all of these features together a significant change is suggested. The rite itself makes clear that local instability continued. However, a rupture with the preceding situation is evident. The bases of local pre-eminence had changed; claiming legitimate imperial Roman status in the old way was now ruled out. Local authority was associated with the Franks and their military forces (once again demonstrating the Merovingians’ political advance from the south rather than the north). This might have involved changes in the local ‘pecking order’; new families might (as in the traditional interpretation) have been brought in and settled on lands by Childeric and Clovis. Alternatively, a local family might have sided with the Franks, adopted their identity and been given power in the community. Such a family could well have been that which had held sway since the fourth century or before, or it could have been an opportunistic rival. In each case, a dependence upon the Franks is clear enough. So too are the risks involved in the gamble. Unlike twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians, the inhabitants of the late fifth century did not know that this move towards the Franks would turn out to be the ‘right’ one. Furnished burials of Stufe I are not especially numerous, especially in its first half (the Flonheim-Gültlingen horizon proper); only after about 500 are women and children found in any numbers. At Lavoye itself only a dozen or so burials belong to the half-century between 475 and 525, compared with about 200 from the succeeding fifty to seventy-five years – although the group is characterised by well-furnished burials with clearly-marked gender differences. Even the probable family of the ‘chieftain’ of grave 319 do not appear to have associated themselves with him in death until the second quarter of the fifth century. Evidently it took time to convince the people of northern Gaul of what Hegel might have called the Reason of History! In such a situation the dependence of the subjects of these burials upon Frankish backing is underlined. The developments of the remainder of the sixth century (not the subject of this paper) only serve to emphasise this.

Closer to the urban or sub-urban nodes of the region, it may be that the families who supported the Franks demonstrated this link to their rivals and the potential distributors of patronage in burials in the civitas-capitals, the castra and the vici themselves, perhaps under any churches that existed at that time. Some of the burials of the period, grave 1760 at Krefeld-Gellep for instance, are found close by such nodal points. Again, though, a link to the new powers is clear. In defence of the old view, however, it must be repeated that the bulk of locally-important families simply (in terms of their archaeologically-visible traces) sat on the fence for much of this period. That said, the dynamics of the situation are clear. The economic stagnation of the period is amply demonstrated. The craft-specialisation visible in the polychrome objects of Stufe I soon disappears and the further decline of Argonne-Ware production by c.540 has been mentioned. Rural settlements and any urban occupation remain notable chiefly for their archaeological invisibility. Acquiring the resources to establish local leadership on a more solid footing, let alone breaking out of very local political arenas, was fast becoming a matter of association with the Frankish kingdom as it became ever more powerfully established in Gaul. This dynamic is even visible in the Triererland, where (in contrast to the so-called Föderatengräber horizon, c.375-c.450) some (albeit not many) Stufe I burials are known and where, as in the rest of northern Gaul, furnished burial had become common across rural communities by c.525, even if the epigraphic habit of the ‘senators’ continued in the civitas-capital itself.

When the Merovingians established their rule in Gaul north of the Loire, then, it can be fairly solidly established on the basis of the evidence we have that, even by the last quarter of the fifth century, they held the ‘whip hand’ in any dealings with the local aristocracy. Outside Trier, no independently powerful aristocracy existed (whether in socio-economic or cultural terms). There was no need for widespread purges, exiles or expropriations across the region. What made the core of the Merovingian kingdom so resilient was the fact that, by 500 at the latest, local leaders came to the kings for the basis of their authority. The creation of an independently wealthy, powerful Frankish nobility would, in the context I have outlined, have been a more difficult task than the acceptance of the existing situation. The class of landed magnates that we know so much about by the late seventh century and which was indeed (or at least could be), by the late eighth century at the latest, unusually wealthy in pan-European terms (richer indeed than many a king in the British Isles), was a much more recent creation.

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 3 of 4)

Part 2 of this article can be found here
The Frankish Aristocracy

A Frankish aristocrat...
Those Treveri who turned to the barbarians for support bring us to the other element involved in studying the origins of Merovingian northern Gaulish social structure: the incoming Frankish aristocracy. The social structure of the Franks, when living outside the Empire, is, however, difficult to evaluate. The archaeology of the Frankish homelands is in many regards exiguous and relevant observations of Roman writers are scanty – a fact that Gregory of Tours encountered as early as the 570s. Frankish communities seem by and large to have employed an unurned cremation rite that left no archaeological traces. Nonetheless this does suggest that the funeral ritual was not the focus for significant expenditure of resources on the manifestation of status, or for competition between kindreds in that regard. Settlement architecture offers some insights suggestive of similar trends. The site at Heeten reveals a small fortification controlling iron extraction. Whether the iron obtained was used within Frankish society and politics (restricting access to the material to those with good relationships with the ruler) or traded with the Roman frontier is unclear but either scenario would see a ruling stratum with politically valuable assets. Trade with the frontier probably also explained the growth of the site of Wijster (Netherlands). It does not seem unreasonable to posit a steady increase in the stability of the power-bases of the numerous local Frankish leaders. Roman frontier policy, insofar as it existed, seems to have prevented the emergence of rulers of the whole Frankish confederacy during the fourth century but does not appear to have undermined the reality of the power of local leaders. When the late fourth-century civil wars broke out, one response to the withdrawal of troops from the frontier to engage in warfare in Italy and elsewhere was evidently the signing of treaties with the barbarian leaders beyond, further bolstering their authority. This will not have been lessened when two such rulers, Sunno and Marcomer, inflicted a defeat upon Roman forces despatched by the equally Frankish magister militum Arbogast. Arbogast’s death in civil war did not produce any amelioration of the situation on the frontier. Claudian is clear that Stilicho’s flying visit to the region did little more than shore up the treaties with the barbarians beyond. As a strategy, this neglect of the crucial Rhenish limes may seem surprising to those brought up on the traditional, misleading narratives of ‘barbarian invasion’ but it fits well with the way the Romans assigned little practical military (as opposed to ideological) value to the so-called barbarian threat, especially when conflict against rival Roman forces loomed. Furthermore, it was not necessarily an ineffective strategy. When a large group of barbarians from the interior of Germania arrived on the Rhine in 405 or 406 and forced their way into the Empire, the local Franks fought hard – if ultimately unsuccessfully – to defend the frontier, killing a Vandal king in the process. No resistance by regular Roman forces is mentioned.

Thus, if there was no established, independently wealthy Gallo-Roman aristocracy for the Merovingians to deal with in northern Gaul, it seems much more likely that a group of powerful Frankish noble or royal families existed with quite well-established power within their communities. Whether there were similarly established aristocratic rungs beneath these lesser rulers, or whether the power of the kings was based upon a more fluid network of leudes or followers is difficult, even impossible, to establish. Nonetheless, traditional historiography has tended to assume that these social strata were those from which the sixth-century Merovingian Frankish leudes (or at least those of this class whose families hailed originally from barbaricum) ultimately descended. Some link seems probable, but the model needs reassessment. For one thing, it remains predicated upon a vision of Frankish settlement that sees it operating as a moving front of invasion, gradually rolling from north to south, somewhat in the manner of the front lines in the World Wars. The reality is likely to have been considerably more complex.

The Frankish settlement of northern Gaul was a slow, complicated process. Some Franks had been settled in Toxandria since the fourth century and doubtless retained contacts with their relatives north of the Rhine. It is probably a mistake, however, to see Frankish migration into northern Gaul as an inevitability once the Romans’ hold on the Rhone frontier was loosened, as it was, fatally, between 388 and 413. The mechanisms of migration require closer consideration than, typically, is involved in the usual assumptions and narratives that see the barbarians as piling up against the limites for some generally unspecified reason and thus inevitably spilling into and swamping or flooding the provinces beyond (in the usual liquid metaphors beloved of the idiom) once the barrier (seen, naturally, as a dam) was removed. The latter is, unsurprisingly, an interpretation beloved of those who present the ‘barbarian migrations’ as a xenophobic, anti-multiculturalist warning to us all. Some barbarians moved as large groups, not peoples but as sizeable contingents related in some way or other to a leader or group of leaders. The latter usually moved into the Empire, in a dynamic witnessed over and over since at least the first century BC, when their standing in their homeland was seriously challenged (often, ironically, as a result of Roman interference). Such mechanisms explain most of the well-known large-scale movements such as the Gothic migration into Thrace in 376 and the ‘Great Invasion’ of 405/6, some participants in which eventually ended up in Carthage thirty years later (these barbarians had arrived in Spain in 409, making this the only dramatic short-term, long-distance migration by any large group in the whole fifth century). There was no Frankish migration of this sort in the first half of the fifth century.

Other migrations were undertaken by small groups or individuals. Sometimes these constituted ‘career migration’, such as motivated by the desire to serve in the Roman army. A permanent change of residence did not necessarily ensue although frequently it did, especially if the recruit reached the army’s higher echelons. Otherwise, barbarians might cross the frontier in search of ‘a better life’, perhaps employed by the Roman state to farm otherwise ‘deserted’ lands, and have a steadier and more assured access to the items of Romanitas which held such attraction in the barbarian homelands. Some furnished burials of late fourth- and early fifth-century northern Gaul have been interpreted as those of such immigrants. Although the evidence for this reading is more or less non-existent, it is likely that some of the local leaders whose families displayed their status in these graves were of non-Roman or specifically Frankish extraction. They nonetheless used the occasion to stress just how Roman their status was.

It is valuable to ponder the existence of these dynamics in the early fifth century. At the higher political level, the withdrawal of organised Roman presence from the Rhine seems – fatally for the ‘straining dam’ hypothesis – to have had no immediate effect on the Frankish polities beyond. Stilicho and, perhaps, other leaders bolstered the power of the frontier kings with treaties and subsidies. This encouraged the Franks to the active defence of the Rhine against the Vandals noted earlier. In this connection one might nevertheless envisage some Frankish groups moving into the Empire, centred on aristocrats or petty kings, perhaps ousted as the greater kings became more powerful in the absence of the old imperial frontier regulation. Although it is likely that they moved further into Gaul to seek the sources of imperial power, it is also possible that whatever residual forces remained on the Rhine (perhaps fast turning into local warlords rather than regular units) would have taken on such recruits. It is also conceivable that such leaders were drawn in by the social and political crisis in northern Gaul, where they could provide armed backing to particular factions. This would be the situation that Salvian witnessed. In this context one might see how an émigré Frankish aristocrat could quite easily become a local leader of some standing and authority. This dynamic might lie behind Gregory of Tours’ famous account of how the Franks crossed the Rhine and set up kings in each pagus. A need for powerful support and backers in the unstable northern Gaulish local politics might also have sucked the power of the Frankish kings southwards and westwards across the Rhine. Such an expansion could also have been produced by the movement of other Franks into the region, when political differences and hostility spilled over into the old Roman province. The dynamics here could have been rather different, though, as any Frankish leaders installed in regions would (it seems reasonable to assume) have been those in a particular relationship with the king. Frankish leaders settled independently might also have been able to maintain their position only by accepting the rule of a greater king.

The proliferation of ‘woulds, coulds and mights’ in this discussion so far illustrates our absence of hard data and reliance upon hypothesis and analogy. Nonetheless, the mechanisms proposed appear plausible and some support for these dynamics can be found in the scanty written record, outside Salvian’s diatribe. Sidonius’ panegyric for Majorian refers to a victory by Aëtius at the vicus Helena – somewhere in northern Gaul (Hélesmes in the département of Nord [France] has been suggested) – over a group of Franks. The ‘battle’ itself seems principally to have involved breaking up a wedding party. This need not have been as farcical an event as might initially seem to be the case, bringing with it as it does the image of grizzled legionaries overturning the cake and skewering the best man in mid-speech. Quite apart from possibly representing a marriage alliance with a northern Gallic magnate family (as Salvian might have envisaged) such an occasion would doubtless have been the occasion for the bestowing of gifts upon local aristocrats, cementing the Frankish leader’s local standing. To have attracted Aëtius’ attention, this must have been a political event on some scale. The location at a vicus is perhaps also instructive, given what was said earlier about the possible roles of such intermediate settlements in late imperial Gallic society. The incident underlines the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy followed by the representatives of the Ravenna government whenever they were in the region, governing ‘by punitive expedition’, and the seriousness of the decision to join the barbarians or otherwise unauthorised local leaders. An earlier defeat by Aëtius of an encroaching Frankish group is mentioned in the 420s.

The movement of ordinary groups of Franks in search of social and economic betterment seems less likely in this scenario. The socio-economic crisis in northern Gaul would surely act as a deterrent compared with the comparative stability (at this stage) of the trans-Rhenan lands. Migrating groups tend also to have to be sure that there is an extant community within the host population that will accept them. Under imperial government (ironically for the usual views), official sanction and organisation of barbarian settlement eased this process considerably. Without organised imperial presence on the frontier the information exchange across the Rhine must have become much more irregular and unreliable. Fifth-century Frankish migrants, then, would have moved in anything other than the ‘wave’ usually envisaged. It is far more likely that they trod well-known routes towards already-existing Frankish communities. The military leaders mentioned above could thus have acted as ‘scouts’; once established, news of their success could have travelled back to their homelands and possibly encouraged others to join them. In this scenario, the local standing of such leaders would be enhanced by the arrival of their fellows from beyond the old frontier. Nonetheless, one still needs to question why, in the circumstances of the earlier fifth century, other Franks would want to leave their old homes and move to Gaul.

On the other hand, the crisis of the Empire and the decline of effective imperial presence on the Rhine might have made extant Frankish immigrant communities more permanent. Critical study of modern migration suggests that the relative closing of borders and clamping down on state benefits for immigrants in the late 1970s and afterwards, rather than cutting off the flow of incomers, made those already living in the host countries less likely to return home (as had previously been the case) – for fear that movement back again, to find work, would become impossible – and instead a desire to bring their families to the host country to ensure the benefits that were still available. It is not difficult to see similar mechanisms at work in the fifth-century frontier provinces. A big part of the migration of Germanic-speaking barbarians in the fourth century was ‘career migration’: service in the army followed by a return home. Without the regular army’s presence, the Frank was more likely to stay in Gaul than to return across the Rhine, and perhaps find a means of bringing his relatives to join him there. There might have been a shift in the dynamics of Frankish involvement in northern Gaul during the late 440s, as will be discussed later.

The late Roman army in Gaul was, however, still recruiting from the Franks, and this point piles further problems upon the traditional ‘moving front’ model. From the middle of the fifth century the Roman field army in Gaul seems to have operated from bases along the Loire valley. Controlling this line enabled easier movement to north, south, east and west, while holding the crossing points effectively prevented such movement by opponents of the government. The stationing of some barbarian groups settled in the fifth century might, by the middle of the century, have been aimed at further strengthening this strategic deployment (doubtless seen neither as a permanent arrangement nor as acknowledging any formal retreat of the frontier). As the lands that could effectively be taxed by the imperial government shrank during the fifth century crisis, it became more necessary to recruit troops from barbaricum. Thus any Franks entering Roman service would have been drawn to the Loire rather than the Rhine. Given the points made earlier it might be the case that, to a greater degree than in the fifth century, those who had them brought wives and families along as well. It is therefore far from unlikely that Frankish settlement did not simply push southwards according to the ‘moving front’ model. An important focus for settlement was well ‘behind the lines’ in central Gaul.

By the late 450s, the recruitment of Franks to the Loire army was such that the army itself appears to have been known and referred to as ‘the Franks’. One stimulus for this was Frankish politics. In the last major barbarian invasion of Gaul, by Attila in 451, the Huns were joined by a king of the Franks whose candidature for the throne they had supported. His brother and rival, following to the traditional mechanisms of barbarian politics, fled to the Empire and thus the Loire army. Consequently, when the Roman army met the Hunnic forces at the Campus Mauriacensis (or the Catalaunian Fields) there were Franks on both sides.

It might be the case that, by the middle quarters of the fifth century, the Frankish territories were suffering experiencing their own crisis. Early fifth-century stability had, as mentioned, been brought about by treaties with and subsidies from the Empire, as it turned its gaze inwards, away from the frontier. By the 440s, though, the Empire had been absent from the Rhine frontier zone for a generation or more. This might indeed have produced a crisis of legitimacy for the Frankish rulers, especially in times of succession, as the events before Attila’s 451 invasion illustrate. Archaeology provides some confirmation of the hypothesis. Wijster had been abandoned by the second quarter of the fifth century, by which time furnished inhumation, a classic index of some sort of social instability at the local level, had made their appearance in the region. By the last quarter of the century, the rural settlements (like Gennep) that were flourishing at the century’s start also experienced contraction.

It is quite likely that the Frankish king supported by Aëtius before the Catalaunian Fields was Childeric, eventual founder of the Merovingian dynasty, found leading the Franks in campaigns on the Loire by the 460s. When he was stripped of office following the execution of emperor Majorian in 461, Aegidius, the magister militum commanding the Loire forces, apparently (according to a famous story told by Gregory of Tours) adopted the title of ‘King of the Franks’. Gregory tells us that this was during an eight-year exile of Childeric amongst the Thuringians. One possible reconstruction of events is that Childeric had been given command of the Loire forces by Aëtius but was removed from that command under Majorian (who became emperor in 457) and replaced by Aegidius. He resumed his command after Aegidius’ death, which took place eight years later, in 465. Childeric might have returned from the north two years earlier, either as a rival for military leadership or as a subordinate commander for Aegidius. The latter is possible as Aegidius, whose command had been ‘illegitimate’ since 461 might have needed to win allies and support (and Frankish recruits) in the face of aggression from the Ravennate government and its Gothic army in Aquitaine. Aside from his famous grave in Tournai and Gregory’s story of his exile in ‘Thoringia’, the sources locate Childeric, without exception, on the Loire or near Paris.

The military power of Childeric (son of Merovech and thus the first Merovingian) thus originated largely in the Roman Loire army. Childeric’s theatre of operations, on the Loire and around Paris, suggests that he had control, early on, of the more prosperous southern half of the Paris basin. It was for the control of these military and economic resources that, after establishing his right to succeed to his father’s position of a king of the Franks, Clovis competed with Aegidius’ son Syagrius, with the aid of some of his northern relatives. Syagrius’ defeat at or near Soissons made Clovis the most powerful northern ruler. By the first years of the sixth century, Clovis’ Franks had cowed the Burgundians and even the Goths of Toulouse, signing a treaty with the latter at Amboise which brought a large amount of gold into the Frankish coffers. Rather than proceeding is a steady north-to-south advance, then, Clovis’ control over the Paris basin extended more in the manner of a pincer, like the legitimacy of his rule, expanding from one base in the north amongst the Salian Franks and another between the Loire and Paris, founded in what had been the Loire army, ‘the Franks’. With the advantages brought by his control of the southern Paris basin, Clovis was able to turn north and gradually eliminate his Frankish rivals. The chronology of these operations is difficult to unravel, as Gregory of Tours’ grouping of Clovis’ campaigns against the other Franks at the end of his reign results from his stylistic desire to portray the Catholic Clovis as a divine avenger. Nonetheless, the take-over of the Rhine Franks of Cologne must have taken place after 507 and the defeat of Alaric II of Toulouse. The conquest of Gothic Aquitaine was another event that brought great wealth and resources to the Merovingian king, with important consequences.

This discussion has crucial implications for the present enquiry. For one thing it implies that many of the leudes and other officers of Clovis and Childeric owed their position to a role in the Loire army. While military service was hereditary in the late Empire, a position in the command structures was not. The economic resources, booty and tribute acquired by the first Merovingians will also have given them great powers of patronage, attracting Franks to them from the north. Any northern Frankish aristocrats who joined the Merovingians will have found themselves competing for royal favour with the officers of the Loire army and other men – Franks, Romans and others – who had risen in and owed their standing to the service of the kings. The Merovingian take-over of the other Frankish kingdoms saw the transfer of the loyalty of the deposed kings’ leudes to Clovis’ family. These too found their position dependent upon Merovingian favour, as Gregory’s stories make clear. The reward of good service with lands and local position underlined this position.

So far, our enquiry has demonstrated that neither the Gallo-Roman population of northern Gaul, nor the incoming Franks had a significant, powerful aristocratic stratum, with which the Merovingian rulers of the late fifth and sixth centuries would have had to contend. Indeed, especially once Clovis had eliminated or cowed his rivals for authority in the north (the other Frankish kings, the Alamans and the Thuringians) it is clear that he held the whip-hand in any relationship with local leaders. Archaeological cemetery evidence further illustrates the situation.

Part 4 can be read here

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 2 of 4

Part 1 of this piece can be found here

Transformations around 400

Thus far, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the facts that the northern Gallic social élite was, outside the Triererland, not especially wealthy and that, along with the region’s economy and most of its social structures, it was intimately connected to the imperial state focused upon Trier. Considering the main issue with which this article is concerned, we can conclude that, even were the Merovingians handed control of northern Gaul via treaty in a smooth transfer of political authority, they would not have inherited a powerful, independently wealthy regional aristocracy.

The preceding discussion renders almost predictable the effects on the region produced by political changes after c.380. In 381 Emperor Gratian moved the imperial court from northern Gaul to Italy and Milan. A series of changes is then visible across the region. In most areas villas enter a final phase of desertion, being abandoned by the second quarter of the fifth century. There were exceptions of course. In more southerly areas, around Paris, there is much better evidence of villa survival until rather later in the century, something that seems also be true in the Triererland. The picture, as before, is rarely a straightforward one of economic decline. In the south of the modern Netherlands, around 400 there is a late phase of construction on some rural sites, such as at Gennep. However, these are not villas of the old type. Even with these caveats, however, the impression cannot be avoided that the very late fourth and earlier fifth centuries constituted a period of profound change in the northern Gallic rural settlement pattern and economy. The development is again incompatible with an explanation in terms of an alleged ‘de-Romanisation’ (as is made clear by the continuing – indeed the increased – usage of Roman symbols in burials) or simply through a new military culture. The fifth-century end of the villas makes the latter explanation unlikely. The fourth-century aristocracy of the region had already, as we have seen, been very largely militarised and even those not involved in the army directly were linked to it economically. We cannot be sure that fifth-century aristocrats were markedly more militarised than most of their predecessors. Indeed, sixth-century Frankish law suggests that civic, Roman aristocrats were still a feature of the area’s social structures. If the fifth-century insecurity led to more fighting and greater (and more violent) competition for local leadership, then this affected the survival of villas not through a shift towards a more military state of mind, allegedly eschewing elaborate building, but through the need to spend surplus on local alliances and the equipment of a retinue, leaving little for the upkeep of stone buildings. Aristocrats had to choose where to spend their limited resources and the times ultimately demanded that they choose politics and security over architectural embellishment. Ultimately, the final demise of the northern Gallic villa is an economic issue, not one of a shift in mentalities – even if the latter can reasonably be postulated.

This impression is underlined by study of the region’s towns, which underwent further dramatic contraction and in one or two cases died out completely. There is little trace of occupation on the intermediate settlements, the vici and castra. This is partly related to the problems of dating very late Roman occupation. The two principal supports for such chronologies are coins and finewares and both are problematic after c.400. The latest developments of Argonne Ware pottery, to which we shall shortly return, were not recognised as such until about 1990, which probably means that traces of fifth-century occupation had earlier been wrongly assigned to the fourth century instead. Additionally, the region’s coin supply dried up early in the fifth century after the closure of the Trier mint. While undoubtedly making the identification of late Roman levels very difficult, these changes are themselves significant. The end of coinage and the failure of local powers to mint replacements, after the end of a series of silver imitation solidi in the middle quarters of the century, imply a significant reduction in the scale and complexity of the economy.

Truly monetized commerce requires a neutral medium of exchange and a guarantee of a coin’s value, accepted by both parties to a transaction. The government of a state or polity has the power to provide such a guarantee, moreover one which can be accepted across large distances. With the crisis of the imperial state in northern Gaul around 400, such guarantees disappeared and the areas over which objects were traded shrank accordingly. In whose name the silver imitation solidi, already mentioned, were struck remains mysterious but these coins nevertheless enabled some monetary transactions to take place across a reasonable distance in the middle quarter of the century. Their face value was nevertheless fairly high and the absence of small change is a crucial index of a downturn in the extent of the economy’s monetization. Such coins possibly served other purposes than the strictly commercial, as was the case with the gold solidi. When these silver coins, which are not numerous in any case, ceased to be struck, coinage in the region was limited to imported Eastern Roman solidi until the Frankish rulers began to strike solidi themselves in the sixth century. The function of this type of high-value coinage (1/72 lb. of gold) might very well have been more political than economic. Small denomination coinage remained absent until the seventh century.

Other coins were available nonetheless. The frequency with which Roman coins are found in the pouches buried with sixth-century Merovingian males suggests that such coins continued to serve as handy units of bullion. Their use was more limited than that of a properly minted and guaranteed currency. It has long been known that, in the sixth century, scales or balances are known in northern Gallic burials. Frequently found in lavishly-furnished graves, their symbolism seems to refer to a role in vouchsafing ‘weights and measures’ and this might (though there are other interpretations) have been related to determining the correct quantity of precious metal in old coins. Although these data come from a later period than that which under consideration, they seem suggestive of mechanisms that could have existed as the late imperial monetary economy collapsed. If we combine this evidence with the conclusions just reached about the relative power of the local aristocracy, it is clear that the word of such a local leader would not be recognised by both parties to a transaction over wide areas: another feature in restricting the distances over which commercial exchanges might be made. Some evidence, to which we will return, suggests that the standing of northern Gallic aristocratic families might have been somewhat more secure in the early fifth century than it was a hundred years later and this could have extended the zones over which their word was held to be good, but the general point will surely stand. With the collapse of monetary exchange, the only other mechanism for long distance movement of goods was that associated with the imperial economy but, in the context we have outlined, this too was fading fast.

It is here that Wickham’s attention to the ceramic data is important. His account is as follows:

In northern Gaul around 400 by far the commonest fine ware in the sigillata tradition was Argonne ware … often quite elaborately decorated with a roller wheel … with a 400km radius of distribution from the Rhine to well south of the Loire … [I]t continued into the late sixth century; it reached less than 200km by now … but survived a century into the Merovingian period as a production on a substantial scale.
If this conclusion can be reached from this evidence, then there must – clearly – be something wrong with the model I have sketched. Something about the other evidence, whether of the rural and urban settlement sites or of the burials, to which I will shortly return, must conceal a crucial element in the equation or else the way we read such data is fundamentally mistaken. The picture of imperial crisis and collapse in the region, after c.380, that I have drawn from the written sources must also be wide of the mark. Wickham has (as we have seen) ways of explaining the exiguous settlement evidence in terms of a shift in aristocratic culture to a more military model, which would fit with the idea of the region’s militarisation. This latter proposal is not entirely satisfactory for reasons that have been discussed, but the main point is that Wickham presents a coherent, rounded argument.

Whether intended this way or not, a fair and straightforward reading of the passage quoted is as follows: this pottery was distributed over an area in excess of 500,000 km2 and continued to be produced ‘on a substantial scale’ through the fifth century to the end of the sixth century, even if the area over which it was distributed had shrunk by half by then. The image presented by such a reading is, however, misleading. If we examine Didier Bayard’s study of this form of ceramics, a rather different picture emerges. We find (figure 1) that in his early fifth-century Phase 2, almost all Argonne ware is found within a 300km-radius of the kilns (6 sites yielding such pottery beyond that radius compared with 66 within it) and within in a ‘box’ 500km (east-west) by 300km (north-south). That is an impressive area of 150,000 km2, but still considerably less than that implied by Wickham’s statement. More to the point, by the time of Bayard’s Phase 3 (roughly 440s-460s) this had contracted further. All of the finds he catalogued from the middle decades of the fifth century lay within a 300-km radius and most (67-79%) of them within 200km. Most lie in a box covering 120,000 km2, less than half the area calculated on the basis of the 300km radius of distribution. Thus, this contraction, which a straightforward reading of Wickham’s account implies was something that happened slowly over the fifth and sixth centuries, actually happened quite suddenly around the middle of the fifth, with the abandonment of the Rhine forts. By the time of the political end of the western Empire in the late fifth century (Bayard’s Phase 4) the distribution of Argonne ware had contracted so that 98% of it was found within a 200km radius – in fact within a 200kmx200km box (a considerably smaller surface area) – though fairly evenly distributed within that zone. Argonne ware does continue into the late sixth century but it is important to clarify that the last decorated phase dies out around 540 and that thereafter only standard undecorated forms were produced. So, rather than being distributed across somewhere between 125,000 and over half a million square kilometres during the late fifth and sixth centuries, the impression easily gained from Wickham’s statement, this pottery was in fact only traded across 40,000km2 during this period. In comparative terms, nevertheless, that might represent a widespread distribution of material, but how it relates to other post-imperial ceramics needs to be reassessed. It is now, for example, suggested that some post-imperial wares made in Leicestershire were distributed over an area ranging from the Channel coast to Yorkshire, a not dissimilar reach. It is also important to note the end of decoration in the early sixth century and the restriction in the range of forms, both of which features underline an economic change not unfairly characterised as decline.

The last phases of occupation on the Rhine forts are shadowy and a sophisticated reinterpretation, pondering whether they were still bases for regular troops or, moving away slightly from the usual narrative, centres for local warlords, is overdue. Either way, it seems clear that after the middle of the fifth century whoever did control these forts was no longer in a position to be able to guarantee a market for the products of the Argonne kilns on anything like the old scale. Overall, the link between the collapse of the state and severe economic contraction could not be clearer.

The archaeological cemetery evidence fits this picture of crisis. From about the time that Gratian moved the court back to Italy, the number of lavishly furnished burials in northern Gaul increases steadily. In these burials, men are interred with weapons and, more frequently the belt-sets and brooches that were the insignia of imperial office. In some cases they were accompanied by burials of women and children, the former buried with a wide range of new jewellery forms, notably brooches. The latter and the desire to fit this change in the record into the old narrative of barbarian conquest led to the assignment of these graves to incoming ‘Germanic’ settlers. A closer examination of the archaeological data (the rite itself and the artefacts deposited), freed from these assumptions, combines with the lack of any documentary historical support for the notion to compel a more subtle reading. This sees the subjects of these burials, as yet comparatively few in number and found in small clusters, often on larger cemeteries, as representing locally powerful families whose status was called into question by the death of a member. Given what has been said about the bases of the northern Gallic aristocracy’s power, so closely related to the presence and legitimation of the Roman state it should be no surprise that their local standing should have been jeopardised by the removal of effective, regular governmental presence. It should equally be unsurprising that the Moselle valley, where the wealthiest nobles seem to have been concentrated, is largely free from such burials at this time. The choice of items, and their symbolism, also makes sense in the context described. In the absence of effective imperial presence, the bases of a family’s legitimate authority were proclaimed, especially when an adult male member died, questioning the inheritance of such authority. In this situation, legitimate power was proclaimed by the use of badges that made a link with imperial power. Otherwise they stressed traditional Roman aristocratic virtues and pastimes, such as hunting. The women’s costume, one imagines, made a comment about their status as a chaste wife, a good mother, and so on. As imperial presence grew ever more distant, the use of the badges of office waned accordingly, although other symbolism persisted. Nonetheless, examination of the ritual in comparative perspective suggests that, as yet, the power of these families was not decisively threatened. In a slightly later period, the distribution of furnished burials was far more widespread across communities, and the choice (and number) of goods related to the life-cycle and gender. Rather than being concentrated in the burials of a particular kindred, but spread across subjects of both sexes and all ages, grave-goods were focussed upon mature adult males and younger women.

On the eve of incorporation into the Merovingian kingdom, the northern Gallic aristocracy was even less wealthy than it had been before and its status within local communities was more under threat as the effective legitimacy of a claimed link with the Empire faded. Although this does not imply that many aristocratic families had necessarily lost their local pre-eminence, it seems to be the case that the social, political and economic arenas within which they lived had shrunk considerably. It is against this backdrop that the famous passages of Salvian’s De Gubernatio Dei should be understood. Long taken, doubtless wrongly, as the paradigm for late Roman western aristocracy, Salvian’s comments must be placed in a very specific chronological and geographical context. The assumption that his tirades against the corrupt aristocracy of his times were aimed at the magnates of the Trier region whence he hailed (and whence he had fled, not least as a result of the actions of these rapacious individuals) is not certain but is a reasonable working hypothesis. We have already seen that the Triererland was an exceptional region of northern Gaul. Archaeological data make it clear that we should have no reason at all to generalise from the aristocrats of the lower Moselle valley. What has perhaps been less fully discussed is the precise moment that Salvian was describing. Writing in the 440s, it is reasonable to suppose that his account of the tyrannical curiales belongs to the 430s or perhaps slightly earlier; the issue turns on how recent one supposes that Salvian’s arrival in the south was at the time of his writing. If the picture he painted does belong to the 430s then it is quite instructive when viewed against the archaeological evidence.

In our current state of knowledge, this decade would lie towards the end of the period of occupation of the Triererland’s villas. The sharp decline in the distribution of Argonne ware and the end of occupation of the Rhine forts in the 440s have also been mentioned, and the politically-active generation of the region would largely have been children (at most) when even a usurper emperor last ruled at Trier. The area was fast approaching a severe, critical point and it is unsurprising that it had become a political hot-house. There was no imperial presence to regulate those who claimed to wield power in its name and none of the usual rotation of offices that was part of the efficient management of patronage. Thus those who could continued to cling onto their ‘legitimate’ power, and in the critical situation of the second quarter of the fifth century they exploited it to the maximum. Without the opportunity to share this power, their opponents could only adopt the strategies mentioned by Salvian: either to wield local authority without formal imperial legitimation, that is to say to become rebels or bagaudae (in the eyes of the imperial government or of those who claimed to act in its name) or to turn to the barbarians for support. The three responses to crisis described by Salvian (claiming legitimate power; claiming power without allegedly imperial legitimation; and turning to the barbarians for support) were, in general, the options available to the political classes throughout the fifth century west, but around Trier they took on a particular form and intensity. The fourth option, the one taken by Salvian, was to flee to areas where the Empire’s writ still ran, and he does not seem to have been the only one to have chosen this course of action. In the Triererland of the 430s-440s, this must have seemed an attractive choice, especially as (unlike us) contemporaries did not know that the Empire would not return. Indeed their knowledge of history doubtless suggested that, eventually, inevitably, it would. For these reasons, the decisions to join the barbarians or to follow the ‘bagaudic’ course – those that seem to modern observers to be the ‘far-sighted’ or ‘realistic’ options – must have been taken by contemporaries very much in extremis. On their periodic forays back into northern Gaul (fizzling out in the 440s – as we know but contemporaries did not), the representatives of the Empire dealt equally harshly with bagaudae and barbarians. As well as creating these risks, turning one’s back on the traditional bases of political power brought all sorts of other identities into question, not least one’s masculinity. That the depredations of those who claimed a legitimate imperial basis for their power should have driven their rivals to take these actions is a graphic indication of how critical the situation on the lower Moselle had become.

Part 3 here.