In this paper I will try and bring the results of research conducted some years ago, on warfare and society, together with a project on which I am currently working on, on the important changes that took place in western Europe between the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh, for which I have used the shorthand ‘The Transformations’ of the Year 600’. It does not represent a final, fully-formed thesis, even insofar as my own work ever does. What I present is the current stage of a work in progress, one that has seen me change my mind more than once, especially about the state, and therefore I am very interested to hear what your responses are. One reason why I think that the changes that took place around 600 have not been given the attention they deserve is the fracturing of European history from the grand narrative of the Roman Empire, its growth, its decline and its fall – whatever one might think of that narrative – into a series of regional or national historiographical traditions and master-narratives. With this in mind it is especially important for me to hear the responses from a different national historiographical tradition to what I have to say.
My paper has two aspects. One is the establishment of profound changes in the practice and organisation of warfare, and the other is the impact of these changes on the nature of post-imperial polities. In particular, the discussion confronts the issue of whether western European kingdoms after circa 600 can still be referred to as states, or whether what is at stake is rather a crucial change in the nature or type of states they were. The other issue concerns whether or not what we can see in this period in the West is the end of the Roman world, not as a political entity but as a set of beliefs, a world view. This relates to the first problem, of political change, in that it addresses the issue of hegemony, in the sense of the word that was used by Antonio Gramsci. If the Roman world view changed, and if the legitimacy of the state – its hegemony – was related to this world view, how did western politics respond in order to maintain the dominance of large areas. We should not forget that the post-imperial kingdoms held larger areas together than any of the realms that succeeded them, up to the early modern period at least. This is a point that makes these discussions even more important. My paper then is about whether we can see what we might very loosely call a ‘military revolution’ around 600, whether we can detect changes in the nature of the early medieval polity and the way it maintained authority and consent within its territory, and whether and how, if we can establish these two points, they are related.
The armies of the fifth and sixth centuries emerged from the last armies of the western Empire. The latter were rather different from the familiar fourth-century Roman army, but were clearly a development from those forces.
For most of the fourth century the Roman army was a standard regular standing force. It differed from the armies of the early empire in that the old differentiation between legionaries and auxiliaries had been replaced by a new hierarchy, which broadly speaking passed from troops stationed on the frontiers – limitanei – through legions upgraded from that status to serve in the field armies – pseudocomitatenses – to the comitatenses, the field army troops. This uppermost tier was itself subdivided into the praesental field armies – those ‘in the presence’ of the emperor – and more regional field armies. Within the field armies an élite was represented by the palatine regiments, the auxilia palatina especially, and the imperial guards regiments, the scholae. Pay and conditions varied according to where one stood within this hierarchy. For some time it has occasionally been argued that an imperial Grand Strategy existed: a defence in depth wherein the limitanei existed to deal with small localised threats and to delay more serious incursions, until the field armies could move up and defeat the invaders. This idea has been pretty thoroughly discredited in almost all its aspects.
The regiments of the auxilia palatina are especially interesting for my purposes. They were recruited initially, it seems, in the period of the Tetrarchy. Constantine I is often associated with their establishment, and damned for doing so by pagan writers like Zosimus who thought that he had started the end of the Empire by introducing these barbarians. This is especially interesting as it is an accusation directly analogous to that thrown at Theodosius and his sons by hostile writers for recruiting large numbers of Goths. I’ll return to this.
During the early fourth century the civil bureaucracy was separated from the military, as part of the Tetrarchic reforms aimed at reducing the risk of rebellion. The old style of education – paideia – remained crucial to advancement and status within the civil service and so this part of the imperial service seems to have appropriated most of the old ideas of Roman civic masculinity, moderation, the control of emotions, and so on. This, I argued in my book on Barbarian Migrations left the army to create its own set of identities, and these were based around things which were the antithesis of the traditional civic Roman male: barbarians and animals. One can see this by looking at the names of the regiments of the auxilia palatina. These are not simply based on contemporary barbarian groups, from whom, presumably, the regiment was initially recruited: Franks, Saxons, Sarmatians, etc. These regiments demonstrably kept their ethnic title long after they stopped being recruited from the barbarians in question – and this was not a new situation, as has been shown with reference to regiments of ‘Moorish’ light cavalry. They also include barbarian groups from the Roman past: Celts, Sabines, Parthians and so on. One doubts that these regiments were recruited from the people in question… Other regiments have names that have a boasting character, quite different from the names of early Roman Legions, some of which have distinct barbarian undertones, such as the regiments of the Feroces (Fierce Ones). Finally there are regiments named after animals: bullocks and lions. This creates, overall, a set of images quite antithetical to the controlled, rational civic Roman.
This was only part of the creation of barbarised identities in the fourth-century field-army. The costume of the late Roman army had clear barbarian features in its trousers and cloaks – which were demonstrably worn by officers of Roman origin. Words of non-Roman origin became accepted as standard military terms within the army. As the century progressed, officers of Germanic extraction, rather than adopting Roman names, increasingly kept their barbarian name. Overall, although there were many actual barbarians in the ranks, the barbarian identities adopted by the Roman army were, I argued, more a Roman artefact, created from traditional Roman ethnography.
The army, furthermore, had its own jurisdictions. Soldiers were exempt from various taxes, especially on the land they were given on discharge, which was frequently drawn from the Empire’s stock of agri deserti, lands for which no designated tax-payer appeared on the tax-lists. The military profession was, hereditary, as the story of Saint Martin makes clear.
Around the end of the fourth century, the empire began to pay its servants, civil and military via a process of the delegation of taxes to designated individuals. The precise mechanisms are difficult to unravel, in particular whether individual soldiers collected their pay directly from specified tax-payers or whether this was done on the basis of the regiment. Whatever the case, on occasion the soldier could leave his delegatio to his heirs. So, by around 400, we have a situation wherein Romans, including aristocrats, were accustomed to serving in units with barbarian names, alongside barbarians, dressing in barbarian costume and using non-Roman military language.
The next stage in the development was the introduction of the foederati after the battle of Adrianople. Traditionally, these have been thought to have been barbarian irregulars recruited from Goths settled as quasi-autonomous groups within the Empire, but a close examination of the data suggests that this was not the case and that what the foederati were were regular units of a new sort, recruited from barbarians, principally Goths. Within a generation, it is clear that these new élite formations were following the same pattern as the auxilia palatina a century earlier. Olympiodorus tells us that they were composed of people of all sorts. By the sixth century, in the eastern empire, Procopius informs us that a foederatus, while he had once been a barbarian in a treaty relationship with the Empire, was now simply a member of a regiment of foederati, and in Maurice’s Strategikon the foederati are simply élite regular cavalry.
In the west such a development was curtailed by the political fragmentation and civil war of the fifth century. In the political circumstances of the period, various regional factions, of Roman aristocrats and armies largely composed of and led by barbarians did not have the resources to tax and raise armies from limited territories under insecure control. Troops were therefore recruited from non-Romans, or the descendants of such; most of the great ‘barbarians’ of fifth-century politics were actually born and bred inside the Roman Empire. It’s worth remembering that. The model of the late fourth century was extended. Barbarian soldiers continued to be paid either through the delegation of tax revenue, as Walter Goffart has suggested, or sometimes through their settlement on the fringes of the territory under political control. Land was found for them on their retirement, probably, as before, from agri deserti. Also, as before, far from all of these ‘barbarian’ soldiers were actual barbarians even by descent. Romans – that is Romans not even claiming a barbarian identity – could and did hold military commands in Gaul, Spain and Italy.
None of this was especially new or shocking. Romans were already used to ‘barbarian armies’, and indeed to serving in them. The ethnic identity of the armies was only, in many ways, an extension of the earlier situation seen with the auxilia palatina regiments and with those of the Gothic foederati. Soldiers with their own legal codes, with their own non-Roman identities, with tax-exemption on their lands, with hereditary service: all this was familiar from the fourth century. The situation had simply been developed and extended. In the economic contraction of the fifth century, it may be that salary was drawn more in kind, and that a closer relationship between soldier and designated tax-payer developed. It may well be that the relationship envisaged by delegatio became more fixed and more hierarchical but on balance the armies that we can trace in the sources of the later fifth and sixth centuries, though quite unlike the regular armies of the fourth century, are nevertheless a clear development from them.
This model describes and explains the armies that are visible to us in the very late fifth and sixth centuries throughout most of western Europe. In Merovingian Gaul or Francia, armies seem to have been organised by civitas. In the north it seems that they were raised from these units by royal officials, the counts, dukes and their subordinates, from landowners claiming a Frankish identity. The military aristocracy could be referred to as ‘the Franks’ and the pactus legis salicae sets out what seem to be two parallel free hierarchies, one Roman and relating to tax-paying and perhaps civil administration and one Frankish and more related to the army. The Franks also considered themselves exempt from certain forms of taxation, leading to some riots and reprisals when kings attempted to tax them. I have suggested that they were raised from these units by royal officials, the counts, dukes and their subordinates, from landowners claiming a Frankish identity. The military aristocracy could be referred to as ‘the Franks’ and the pactus legis salicae sets out what seem to be two parallel free hierarchies, one Roman and relating to tax-paying and perhaps civil administration and one Frankish and more related to the army. The Franks also considered themselves exempt from certain forms of taxation, leading to some riots and reprisals when kings attempted to tax them. I have suggested (although obviously this cannot be proven) that the root of the problem was that Franks considered themselves exempt from all tax on land, whereas kings only considered the lands they held in return for their military service as exempt from these levies. In Aquitaine, after the expulsion of the Goths in the early sixth century, although at the same time probably continuing a situation that existed there under the Goths, it is clear that Gallo-Roman aristocrats led armies and that armies were raised from these people. With no substantial Frankish settlement and the removal of the Goths, perhaps there was no alternative to this. A story in Gregory of Tours’ Histories suggests a division into landowners liable to military service and tenants who were not. Otherwise the civitas-based mechanism for raising the army is well-attested.
A similar bipartite organisation is visible, as is well-known, in Ostrogothic Italy. There it is possible that we can see similar geographical variations, in areas away from the initial settlement of the Ostrogoths, and a shift through time as Romans acquired military roles and perhaps started to adopt Gothic identity, although this process was cut short by the Gothic Wars. The Goths – the army – seem to have been paid in the delegation of tax revenue, as Goffart suggested, although they were also granted lands and these may have been exempt from taxation. The regular assemblies of the Goths were occasions wherein the kings could distribute and redistribute their patronage and expose their military followers to statements of royal ideology. I suspect a similar usage by the Franks of their assemblies of the Marchfield on 1 March. The evidence is less plentiful from earlier Visigothic Spain but insofar as it can be evaluated it suggests, on balance a similar organisation.
Territorial levies of certain types of landowner – Franks or Goths – were supplemented by the military households of the kings and their principal aristocrats, and these in many ways functioned as a sort of standing army, although one must be careful to make clear that in many important regards this was only true in certain restricted senses of the term. The terms bucellarius, antrustio, saio, gardingus, and puer can all be found being used to describe these more professional warriors. Age and position in the life-cycle seem to have played an important role in the recruitment to these groups, as the term puer indicates. What seems to have been the case is that young, unmarried males served their military apprenticeship in one of these households. If such service was performed well then it seems that they would receive lands and so on, marry and settle down. It might even be that the military ethnicity was acquired at this stage, as there are no references in the pactus legis salicae to any Frankish children – only adults have an ethnic identity. Clearly details varied. In Spain, bucellarii could keep any weapons given them for life but any land they were given remained in the dominium of their masters. Which stage of a military career is envisaged by this law is not, however, entirely clear. As far as we can tell, and the waters are muddied by that fact that sometimes the detailed information only comes after the period I am looking at in this section, those warriors of the royal household referred to as the antrustiones, the gardingi or the gasindi in Lombard Italy all seem to be an older category of established and experienced warriors. These would seem to be warriors with their own households, perhaps in more intermittent attendance on the king than the younger pueri regis. This might itself have been a continuation of Roman practice. After all, the imperial bodyguards, the scholae have given their name to ‘schools’ and the schola palatina is a term that one encounters in sources about the Merovingian palace and its military elements. Similarly, it might be – although several theories have been proposed – that the division of Roman regiments in iuniores and seniores is related to age. In many ways it might be the simplest explanation although strangely it has rarely been suggested.
In terms of weaponry, the armies of this period similarly appear to represent developments of late Roman practice. The archaeological record seems, from Anglo-Saxon England south to the more Mediterranean regions, to give an impression of warfare based at least partly on mobility and fluidity. Such analysis as there is suggests a predominance of weapons suitable for throwing and/or shooting, such as franciscae, angones, javelins and so on, alongside shield-bosses that similarly suggest a mobile form of fighting. They are designed, it seems to catch and parry blades in a fencing style of fighting. These weapons are found alongside weaponry for close-in fighting but overall a tactical practice that was not dissimilar to that, as far as it can be established, of the late Roman army does not seem implausible, with volleys of missile weapons before hand-to-hand-fighting.
Armies and the State (1)
In terms of its relationship to the government of the realm, though, it can be concluded that, across the post-imperial West, the army served as an instrument of royal power. In the situation following the disintegration of the western Empire, the kings held all the aces in their relationships with an aristocracy which, in some areas, such as Britain and northern Gaul, needed royal service and patronage as the best means of maintaining any sort of local social pre-eminence and, in others such as Spain, southern Gaul and Italy, needed this sort of favour in order to maintain the sort of active involvement in large-scale politics to which it had become accustomed under the Empire, and to maintain its position within its peer group. The more established Roman senatorial aristocracies of places like Aquitaine and Italy were increasingly driven to seek royal office, and indeed to seek roles with a military command, as their local political dominance was threatened as the kings introduced their own followers – their Franks or Goths – as their agents into regional society and politics. Such officials had greater de facto power because of their military command and their direct link to the king, however much greater the ancestral and cultural standing, or landholding wealth, of the old Roman nobility might have been. Thus aristocrats who were potentially capable of dominating and indeed governing their regions were bound into the Merovingian state by their participation in the competition for the favours, patronage and offices bestowed by the Frankish kings. Aquitaine remained firmly a part of the Frankish kingdom without kings ever having to go there. Compare that with the situation in the ninth century. As a result of these royal policies, the army could be, and was, used as a coercive force by the kings against rebellious aristocrats.
I suspect that similar dynamics were at play in the Ostrogothic kingdom. Areas close to Theoderic’s capitals in the north probably functioned much like the northern regions of the Frankish kingdom. Areas further away probably saw similar dynamics to those visible in Aquitaine.
An alternative situation is visible in Spain, and this might partly explain why the evidence is less clear even than that from Gaul. The royal dynasty of the Visigoths was extinguished by a Frank called Besso in 532. The last king of the line, Amalaric, had not reigned in his own right for very long; before that the realm was under the not unsuccessful leadership of the Ostrogothic general Theudis. The crisis of 507-10, the expulsion from Gaul and the minority of Amalaric that followed came not very long after the start of the kingdom of Toulouse’s expansion into Spain. Not only that, but possibly fairly successful, though temporary and badly documented, campaigning continued in Gaul until the 530s. Gregory of Tours lets slip that the Goths retook much of the territory lost to Clovis, these campaigns of reconquest presumably being led by Theudis. All of these features probably explain why the Gothic kingdom in Iberia should I think not be seen as a kingdom covering all of the peninsula outside the control of the Suevic realm of the north-west but as little more than a loose hegemony outside a band of directly-controlled territory extending from the north-east, around Barcelona, through to perhaps Mérida. The crisis of Agila’s reign was produced by a defeat at the hands of the citizens of Cordoba, and similar, evidently city- or local senate-based polities appear in the sources for Leuvigild’s reign – they had, I assume, always been there. It is, in my opinion, not coincidental that the distribution of furnished burials, and especially of burials with weapons, lies around the fringes of this kingdom, where rival bases for local power might have been in competition.
In other words, the failure of the Goths to create a dynasty with the hegemony created by the Merovingians in Gaul, or to wield, before Leuvigild, the sort of military force necessary to bring the peripheral regions into the realm, local aristocrats saw no reason to incorporate their regions within the Gothic kingdom. This might be one reason why Theudis maintained his authority with an army raised from the private estates of his Hispano-Roman wife. Michael Kulikowski has plausibly suggested that such forces in the fifth century were used as a counter-point to the forces of the cities and I suspect that this might have been the case for Theudis in the sixth century too, although doubtless he also had to confront the possibly centrifugal forces of rival Gothic aristocrats and their own forces.
Within the areas controlled by the Visigothic kings it seems to be the case that the Gothic army was a similar sort of royal force to that we can see in Gaul. However, the clearer evidence in support of this view comes with Leuvigild’s reign. I suggest that it was the case that Leuvigild’s military successes functioned much as similar military successes had done with the Merovingians two or three generations previously, allowing him to eradicate alternative regional and local sources of authority. Military success allowed him to reduce potentially rival noble dynasties to a status closer to that of service aristocrats, using the same sorts of mechanisms as in early Merovingian Gaul: the distribution and redistribution of patronage, the insertion of royal officials with military backing into local politics and so on. Of course, the curse of the Visigoths after 532, that none of their dynasties managed to survive more than two generations, nipped this development in the bud with Reccared’s death in 602.
A not entirely dissimilar set of factors explains the fragmentation of post-Justinianic Italy after the Lombard invasion, at least until the early eighth century.
Description of change
We can now move on to the changes that occurred around the year 600. Note, however, that the situation in western Europe in the later fifth and sixth centuries was certainly not without its dynamism and regional variation. I will describe the changes that I think took place under the same general headings as I used in the previous section, first looking at the mechanisms of raising armies and then looking at what we can say about armament, strategy and tactics.
The principal aspect of change in military service can be summed up, I think, by calling it a move towards armies composed of aristocratic retinues. Now, some words of clarification are necessary to at least imply that some nuance underlies what must of necessity in a short lecture appear to be crude generalisations. For one thing, retinues had played a big part in the royal armies of the fifth and sixth centuries, as I have already described – the pueri, the bucellarii and the rest. It is also likely that at least the wealthier Franks and Goths summoned to the army by royal officials came with their own pueri in attendance, even if only to fetch and carry. The distinction I would like to suggest is that in the sixth century the aristocrats whose military households formed the core of armies held their position principally as royal officials, and kings could and did remove them from these positions. What happened to their retinues in such circumstances is undocumented but one imagines that much of it transferred to the new incumbent. I wonder if considerations relating to this lie behind Visigothic law’s distinction between gifts of weapons and of land to bucellarii.
Similarly, and related to this point, the means by which the army was called became, I suggest, more selective according to wealth and status. This again requires clarification. I do not suggest that the sixth-century levy was unselective. To have called out every Frank or every landowner within a civitas would very likely have produced more men than were either needed or could practically be fed and supported on campaign. So, especially as Frankish ethnicity spread in northern Gaul, the counts, dukes and centenarii, I imagine, selected the best equipped and the most locally politically powerful, influential and well-connected men in the region. This and the point about retinues are important to spell out as I do not think that I made these points clear enough in my previous writing on the subject.
The fifth- and sixth-century situation had contained within it the seeds of change. One was the common ethnic nature of military service. Ethnicity was not fixed and might have been something acquired at about the age where a male established a household. Further, unsurprisingly, it appears to have been gendered in the immediately post-imperial period: ethnic identities are ascribed overwhelmingly to men. However, the attractions of non-Roman ethnicity inevitably meant that it became steadily more common and, by 600, more or less universal among the aristocracy and free landholding classes across most of the West. Simultaneously, it appears to have been more universally assigned within families of such ethnicity (to children and women as well as adult males). Given the tax-exemption of people subject to military service, this development will have meant that liability for duty in the army, and one presumes a concomitant inclusion within their ranks, spread to freemen less able to bear the costs of such service. It will also have reduced the amount of land subject to royal taxation and, through the inheritance of ‘military lands’ by women of non-Roman ethnicity, probably led to its tenure by people considered incapable of performing military service. These points alone would probably have produced significant change in the raising of armies there were many other factors that made the decades around 600 a period of intense transformation of western European society and economy. Another key development in many regions was a growth in the power of aristocracies, vis-à-vis the monarchs. Thus significant changes in the nature of armies during the seventh century are unsurprising.
By the mid-seventh century it is very difficult to see any trace of the post-imperial means of raising armies. Mentions of the ‘men of Mainz’ and of the pagenses of Saintes in a campaign of 639 may be the last allusions to levies based on the old administrative districts (the civitates and pagi), such as had been common in the sixth century. Instead, references to armies take us in two complimentary directions. On the one hand we begin to encounter what might be termed ‘select’ levies – scarae. The word is cognate with the English words ‘shear’ and ‘share’ and implies a select band, cut (or sheared) off from the mass. With the presumed spread of liability for military service (if assessed according to ethnic identity) this is unsurprising; a levy of the free population would be entirely impractical. In the social and economic context of the early middle ages, armies larger than a few thousand men were unfeasible. It is here that the term ‘select’ should be qualified as above. What changed between the sixth and the seventh century was not whether or not warriors were drawn from a select group but the means of selecting such troops.
How this ‘shearing’ was carried out is suggested by the other prevailing aspect of seventh-century military organisation: the aristocratic retinue. With the words of caution made above, we can nevertheless say that military households dominated seventh-century army-composition. Their precise nature also appears to have changed. Seventh-century sources widely acknowledge the existence of freemen dependent upon their more powerful fellows, and a class of aristocrats whose power was (unlike in the sixth century) quite independent of royal service. Evidence of more secure tenure of large estates by such magnates is more easily found and these lands were used to reward followers. This seems to have meant that, whereas in the sixth century the older warrior performed his military service to the king according to general systems of obligation, in the seventh, even after leaving the age-group of the pueri, the warrior still performed military service in his lord’s retinue. In diverse parts of western Europe such nobles appear to have interposed themselves between the king and the remainder of the free population. Around 600 the last vestiges of Roman taxation disappeared, largely because these imposts had passed into the control of estate owners. We find legislation concerned with the frequent intrusion of magnates into the operation of royal justice, protecting their ‘satellites’ from the sentence of judges. At the same time, aristocratic dynasties become more visible, frequently monopolising administrative offices whose bestowal had hitherto been entirely within the royal gift. We are as yet some way from the situation where counties or duchies were hereditary but the detectable sequences of counts in particular areas from the same families strongly suggest that, although such a title had no value without the legitimation of royal appointment, these kin-groups had a clear expectation that the king would appoint one of their members when the post became vacant.
Juxtaposing these general developments, it seems that during the seventh century the magnates were able to insert themselves into the means of levying the army. When a military force was required, even if legitimised by royal summons and nominally employing old ideas of liability for military service, in practice the local counts would select or ‘shear off’, from all those theoretically liable for military service, the most politically and socially important land-holders and their allies and dependents. As the army was the most important political assembly within a kingdom (see below), the choice of whom to summon and whom to leave behind was a significant source of local power and patronage. What happened in most of the seventh-century West might, then, not unreasonably be termed a ‘privatisation’ of the army. I have distinguished the different means of levying an army by the terms ‘horizontal’ (levied according to a kingdom-wide ‘flat rate’ by royal agents working within specific royal administrative districts: the sixth-century model) and ‘vertical’ (raised down chains of dependence within aristocratic estates and dependencies as in the seventh century); this may yet suffice as a crude short-hand.
Intriguingly, a significant change in armament seems to have occurred at this time. The practice of burying weapons in graves provides, by early medieval standards, an enormous sample (many thousands of items) of contemporary weaponry, although unevenly distributed geographically and temporally. Between c.575 and c.625, several hitherto common items disappear from that record. In Francia especially, these include the francisca and the ango. In England, certain types of javelin also cease to be found. Simultaneously, a change in defensive weaponry occurs. In the seventh century, shields became larger, with longer and heavier bosses, perhaps more suited simply to shoving or punching an enemy. Contemporary with these changes, the sword becomes less frequent in the record while the one-edged dagger (scramasax) becomes longer, broader and weightier. Spearheads also became larger and heavier. It is risky to deduce a shift in tactics from a change in weaponry but the transformation of armament between c.575 and c.625 seems to point in one general direction: from a faster, more open, type of warfare with small, easily mobile shields and much use of specialised missile weapons towards combat centred on close-packed hand-to-hand fighting. The larger, heavier shields and spears seem adapted to this type of warfare and the broad, chopping, single-edged scramasax is more suited to it than the two-edged broadsword. Indeed the scramasax combines the best features of the sword and battle axe, the latter of which (like the throwing axe) disappears from the record until the Viking era.
Surviving evidence provides no real clues as to whether defensive armour became more common, as one might expect. Helmets and body-armour are proportionately more frequent in the seventh century than the sixth but we cannot deduce much from this. The burial of armour was geographically very restricted, and cannot reflect its actual frequency. It was probably more affected by ritual demands than the burial of other items. Furthermore, outside southern Germany most surviving examples come from entirely untypical burials (the ship burials at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia and at Vendel and Valsgärde in Sweden).
Relating developments in armament and the putative tactical change deduced from them to the transformation in the raising of armies is difficult. Some of the weaponry which dropped out of use – especially the francisca – apparently required specialist training to use effectively, whereas one might, superficially, wonder whether close-fighting ‘shield-wall’ tactics were more suitable to larger, comparatively less well-trained forces. However, as noted, seventh-century armies were perhaps no more select than sixth-century; the means of selection changed. Further, and this might be crucial, close-fighting techniques probably required more expensive protective equipment, notably helmets and body-armour, which could have restricted participation to those with the economic wherewithal to provide protection for themselves and their followers. This would tally with the growth of aristocratic power discussed above. It is also possible that the coherent employment of close-fighting techniques required the elements of a ‘shield-wall’ to have more frequent training as a body. This might be more feasible within an aristocratic retinue than in an irregularly assembled conglomeration of land-owners. However, this can only remain a suggestion and there are arguments that one might present in opposition to it.
In much of north-western Europe the period from c.600 onwards was one of economic expansion, which might well have enabled slightly larger armies to be mobilised, at least for large-scale conflict. This and the increased private resources in the hands of local aristocrats could also support a growth in the frequency of metal body-armour. It might also have been more feasible for aristocrats to equip larger followings with probably the most expensive item of a warrior’s equipment, his horse. However likely this might seem from the period’s general economic developments, and although there are some indications of this in the data, an increase in the proportion of an army’s mounted troops is as impossible to confirm from our evidence as a growth in the frequency of armour and helmets. As with the other suggestions linking social and military developments in the period after 600, it might nevertheless be worth retaining as a working hypothesis.
Armies and ‘the ‘state’ (2)
There are two ways of thinking about the question of the state from the perspective of these changes. We might call ‘the weak thesis’ the idea that this period saw the demise simply of a particular ideal sub-type: the ‘late antique state’. ‘The strong thesis’ would be the idea that what happened represented the end of anything that can reasonably be called a state with any analytical precision, in the late antique west. .
The idea that anything that could helpfully be called a state ended in around 600 in western Europe is historiographically unfashionable. Recent historiography has tended to rehabilitate the notion of an early medieval state. This is, to no small degree, linked to the rise of what is called the ‘consensus model’ of early medieval politics, which argues that political negotiation and the use of royal ritual created the consensus necessary to keep aristocrats in league with the kings and indeed get anything done. The idea of a zero-sum model of politics, wherein a growth in aristocratic power equals a commensurate reduction of royal power (or vice versa), has seriously been questioned. More fashionable is the idea that kings and aristocrats worked together in mutually beneficial fashion. A growth in the power of one can lead to a growth in the power of the other: constantly increasing the total amount of power, if you like. Good historians have shown convincingly that early medieval people had an idea of a political community that existed outside the persons who happened to rule in particular ways at particular times and places. Even the most un-state-like of early medieval realms existed on the basis of more than mere personal links. All this has shown us that cohesive kingdoms existed in the early Middle Ages and this has been elided into the idea that therefore such polities were states. In 2003, in Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, I talked willy-nilly about coherent kingdoms as ‘states’.
But cohesion, to me, does not equate quite with statehood. The more recent impressive ‘statist’ historiography does not seem to me to have made the case for thinking of the early medieval realm as a state, in an analytically useful fashion. No one has explained the demise of the late Roman bureaucratic state in the west, and the Roman state did end. No one has produced a reliable and/or theoretically coherent ‘worked example’ showing exactly how aristocrats and kings worked together to maximise the power and authority available to each in the early Middle Ages. Although the zero-sum model may not have existed in its crude form, I do think that something very like it did exist. In other words, the acquisition of certain types of power by local or regional aristocracies did mean a relative diminution of the effectiveness of central government. When all power, ultimately, comes from the land, there is really no way of avoiding this point.
Similarly, the flaws of the approach are pointed up if you look at ‘horizontal’ as well as ‘vertical’ competition, that is to say competition within the strata of the élite classes as well as between them. If, in the words of one fairly recent (if unreliable) writer on the topic bluntly says, ‘the struggle for political power was not a zero sum game’, why was there a struggle at all? And indeed the consensus, statist model of the early medieval state usually appears to be pretty struggle-free. Most papers on the topic say at some point that ‘we should not assume that this was a cosy state of affairs’ but, if one continues to read, one rarely gets the impression that this state of affairs was anything but cosy.
And yet, these were polities where kings blinded their own sons, where civil wars broke out that occasionally at least resulted in fairly bloody battles. So what, if everyone gained, were they fighting, killing and dying over?
There are three main problems with the current historical trend in favour of the early medieval state. First, all the work upon ‘buying in’, upon consensus, has moved us too far away from coercion, from the radiating out. For a state to exist meaningfully both have to be present. A state must be able actively to penetrate local and regional society from above as well as to persuade local and regional élites to invest in it from below. Local aristocrats and others might have used the legitimacy of power provided by involvement in the structures of a realm to further their own ends, creating the coherence of that realm as a political entity. But what if any chance did rulers have of enforcing compliance with his wishes in the localities? The former state of affairs suggests a coherent kingdom but only if we can answer the latter question with evidence of at least relatively effective evidence that kings to had the ability coerce their aristocrats in cases where they did not wish to comply are we in the presence of a state.
The second, closely related, problem is that historians of all perspectives, Marxist or otherwise, have assumed an alliance between local élites, or aristocracies, and central government, kings, emperors or whatever. This alliance has never been shown to be necessary. Indeed I think the assumption is fundamentally mistaken.
The third problem is that the appreciation of collective power has come at the expense of a neglect of what Mann called distributive power: power which, if more is accumulated in the hands of one person or group, involves a decrease in the power of another. As Mann argues, both types of power exist simultaneously; we are not talking about a crude zero-sum game.
In an early medieval context, there is an important materialist challenge to the concentration upon ideology and collective power. The period that concerns me (and indeed most of the early medieval period in the West) was one where power ultimately resided in the control of land and its surplus. Most of it was non-monetary and, on either side of the 600 watershed, there were few truly urban centres. Trade and commerce were in any comparative sense, rudimentary, in spite of the wealth of very good work done in recent decades on unravelling such exchange systems and networks. Certain types of power might have been collective and potentially infinite, but the material basis of power was finite. Seed-yield ratios may have been less bad than used to be thought but there was still a fairly clear limit on the surplus to be drawn from land, and it was never entirely secure, as the incidence of famine shows. Technology limited surplus extraction to muscle power, human and animal – again finite. And the amount of land available was – also – finite. Thus whatever the ideological and other investments in effective power, when you come down to the basics, the resources of power were limited.
There is a very basic – indeed a brutal – implication of all this. In a socio-economic situation such as existed in western Europe after the break-up of the Roman Empire, armed forces could only be maintained by and rewarded with land and/or the revenues or surpluses from land. Thus armed force, which, like agricultural techniques in this period, was a simple question of human and animal muscle, was a fixed resource. Control over armed force, over the military source of power, was, ultimately, therefore distributive.
A polity whose rulers do not tax and thus have no income derived other than from their position as simply one élite landholder among many, and who have no effective independent coercive force, cannot, in my vaguely Weberian view, be called a state.
This talk requires definitions. Most discussions of the state, since Weber, have continues to turn on the issue of force. The first of Chris Wickham’s defining characteristics is ‘The centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army)’. Susan Reynolds modifies Weber’s monopoly of force to a control of legitimate force. Michael Mann also stresses the control of coercive force.
One would not consider a state that had no means of enforcing its rule other than via violence against its subjects to be a very secure state – it might today be called a failed or failing state. And yet a state that has no ability, beyond persuasion, to penetrate a barrier of local aristocrats to ensure that its writ runs in local society does not seem to me to be much of a state either. Nor do I think it is helpful at all, as Susan Reynolds does, to think that a polity that is a loose confederation of small, tightly controlled lordships should be called a collection of mini-states. One must have a control of legitimacy, to be sure, but the branding of some actions as legitimate and others as not, can be an empty gesture without the ability to penalise the illegitimate. To my mind the rulers of kingdoms like the Merovingian demonstrably had the ability to penalise the illegitimate as a matter of course, in a way that their successors would find increasingly difficult. So there must be an ideology of legitimacy that works in convincing local and regional élites to work for the state, and indeed which places (as in many definitions of states) the power derived from state function higher than the power derived from de facto local wealth and social distinction. Such things have been very well studied. However, comparative study of political dynamics across late antiquity, the middle ages and beyond shows that for us to be able to discuss a polity as a state, those means of persuasion, the establishment of a monopoly of legitimate power must, at some stage be based around the idea to back up followers and reduce opponents through force. This does not seem to me to be out of step with Chris Wickham’s or Susan Reynolds’ general definitions of what it takes to be a state. Where I disagree with Chris is that I think that the western European kingdoms before 600 fit his definition as states, whereas those afterwards, increasingly do not.
Thus, alongside the general continuation of taxation, the ability of rulers between 400 and 600 to summon and employ a coercive military force allows us to think of their kingdoms as ‘states’. With the change in the raising of armies just described, this situation altered profoundly. From c.600, the mustering of armies was increasingly (with temporal and geographical exceptions) a matter of negotiation between the royal court and local and regional aristocracies. This in turn meant that in practice it was concomitantly difficult for a monarch to summon an army to resolve internal difficulties such as recalcitrant or rebellious noblemen. The army ceased to be classifiable as an independent governmental coercive force, which must have profoundly affected kings’ ability to harness the surplus of their realms beyond their own private estates. Thus, against historiographical fashion, I think that this makes it unjustifiable to classify as states the kingdoms of the period after c.600. None of this, it cannot be emphasised too strongly, implies that these polities were not cohesive or that kings did not wield considerable authority. Dynastic legitimacy and other ideological strategies could mean that the royal court remained the essential focus of politics. Nevertheless, without the ability to raise armed forces independently of regional and local magnates in order to impose their will upon the diverse localities of their realms, it is unhelpful to call these kingdoms states. Doubtless this version of what I called the ‘strong thesis’ still requires more subtlety and reflection, but I think that something profoundly happened to late antique states in western Europe around 600, and I continue (just about) to think that what happened was that they ceased to be states.