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Monday, 28 November 2011

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 √©lite 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.

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