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Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Burning Questions of Lecturing Life

"I did no work this term and it's your
fault because your teaching is
Why is there always one?  Why is there always one wee shite who decides to muck up your feedback returns?  I take my teaching seriously and I take my feedback seriously too.  If the forms all said 'Grumpy is a useless sack of shit who can't teach his way out of a paper bag' I'd be enduring some long dark nights of the soul (well, even more than I do anyway), I can tell you.  Even if they mostly said only marginally nicer things - 'it wasn't bad I suppose but it could have been much better', that sort of thing - I'd be asking myself some pretty searching questions, and our Johnny's gratuitous trolling wouldn't seem so out of place.  Feedback's essential for pointing out (or confirming what you suspected were) things you can be doing better or experiments which didn't go so well, for next time, and that's fine.  I'm all in favour of feedback (within certain limits) to the extent that for some years now (ahead of the rest of my dept) I've carried out interim feedback exercises mid-way through courses to see if there are things I can improve.

As it happens, I just finished teaching a new second-year course.  As my regular reader knows, I've been away for three years on a research fellowship so the students who signed up for this had signed up 'blind'.  Students in my experience are wary about courses with lecturers they don't know, so it wasn't as heavily subscribed as the other courses of the same type and many who were enrolled had not listed it as a first choice (as became clear in feedback, albeit via rather nice comments along the lines of 'this wasn't my first choice but I really enjoyed it').  Additionally I was trying to do something different, to stretch the students a bit, something that upped the intellectual stakes, rather than just being entertaining.  If you just want an amusing 'ho ho, welcome to the crayyy-zee world of late antiquity' lecturing clown to lure first-years away from the Tudors and Hitler and into medieval history, I'm your man but to be honest that's become too easy; it's still fun and I enjoy it lots but it's not a challenge any more.  Trying to develop a second-year lecture course (quite a new phenomenon in the Stuff wot Happened department at Poppleton University) that did something different and required more of the students was a challenge.  Furthermore, before I went off on my fellowship, some of our students (not many but a significant and vocal minority) had shown themselves capable of being pretty strident about hating anything theoretical, anything that wasn't all kings and wars ('proper history') and especially anything that they thought might be 'Marxist' (and I'd told 'em, straight up, in the briefing that I was not a Marxist but that I was a socialist)...  This had also led me to think that 'students today' were all result-obsessed and uninterested in being challenged intellectually.  But I had decided to go full speed ahead and damn the feedback forms.  For all those reasons I was expecting some, shall we say, 'mixed' responses.

So I am chuffed that the responses were overwhelmingly positive.  At 85-89% it may not (if you care about such things) have been numerically the highest score I've ever had (normally I hit the 90s) but, as noted, I wasn't expecting the students necessarily to enjoy the course.  Moreover, the free text comments were generally very favourable.  The most important - and cheeriest - thing to report is that I had been quite wrong in my prognosis of 'students today'.  Given the nature of recruitment (see above) and given that they'd had (in no particular order) Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Gramsci, Žižek, Bourdieu, Giddens and even an off-the-cuff (and possibly wrong) allusion to Heidegger rained on them for ten weeks without warning, the number that reacted positively to mixing history and philosophy, to intellectual stimulation, to being made to get their heads round difficult concepts, and to being challenged, was probably the best Christmas present of all.  Thanks for that!

It wasn't all positive, of course.  Apart from the inevitable stuff that needs tightening up for next time, there was one student who rated the course 2 out of 4 but said the teaching was very good, which I assume means that they didn't much enjoy the subject matter but that it was well-taught.  Fair enough.  To be honest, I'd rather that than a response that said they'd loved the course but that it had been an utter shambles.  I don't think it's clear, to us or the students, whether the overall 'rate this course out of 4' part of the form means 'how much did you enjoy this course?' or 'how well taught was this course?' - and they are quite different questions.  But I digress.

So we come to the inevitable Johnny Troll.  There's always one, the one student who said the lectures were poor, that the philosophy 'detracted from the subject of the course' (ahem, that sort of was the subject of the course), that the VLE* was poor, that the group work was pointless, etc.  Really, what is this about?  When the obvious translation is 'I didn't want to do this course so I have sulked for the past ten weeks; I came to a couple of lectures and didn't understand them; they weren't just telling me what was what, like 1st-year lectures; I expected the VLE to be a list of just what I needed to read; I couldn't be bothered to take part in any group work and let my fellow students down too.'  When it's so out on a limb, so out of step with the rest of the feedback (about lectures, VLE, etc), what is he (and I'd bet a  month's salary, pre-tax, that it was a he) thinking?  OK maybe he's a Billy No-Mates (I kind of hope so, what with me being vindictive and all) and doesn't have any awareness of what his class-mates think.  Maybe he thinks his opinion outweighs all theirs (I wouldn't rule that out either)?  Maybe he thinks my head of department, when he comes to review the feedback, is going to push all the positive forms to one side and say 'Grumpy, this just won't do!  You're fired!'  Maybe he thinks my Head of department will summon a public parade of the University and in a sort of academic re-enactment of the Dreyfus Affair, symbolically smash a chair in front of me and my colleagues and throw the pieces on the ground in front of me, tear up my letter of appointment and throw it on the ground, rip my doctoral gown off my shoulders...  You get the picture.

Nah.  It's none of the above, in my opinion.  In my view, the reason is that he knows what the other burning feedback-related question of lecturing life is.  And it's a big question too, one that applies to every other history lecturer that I've ever spoken to about this.  It is this: why is it this piece of feedback, rather than the 30-odd that went out of their way to say nice things (sometimes wildly, probably equally unjustifiably nice things) about my course - why is it this one response - that has stayed on my mind for the rest of the day?

*Virtual Learning Environment: the intranet on which course materials etc are posted.  In my university it is called 'Yorkshare' - see what they did there?

Friday, 14 December 2012

It's the thought that counts

T-Shirt given to me by my MA students this week (front and back).

As my partner put it, 'So they bought you a T-Shirt with a critique of your life's work on it?'

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

For What it's Worth: Historian on the Edge doth tweet

I may never use it, but who knows?  I now have a Twitter account.  The stalkerishly-inclined can know follow Historian on the Edge at https://twitter.com/HOTEdge1

Monday, 29 October 2012

A few more thoughts on contact hours

[Here's another extract from my 2nd-year briefing, which I present for prospective (and indeed current) university students and their parents.  It's a sort of attempt to make a kind of contract between me and my 2nd-years.  So far - though they're a tough crowd - they seem to be working very well in class, so maybe some of it went in, with some of them!  But it follows on from what I've said before about contact hours and how to understand the issue.]

[What I expect of my students]

No, Mr Bond, I expect you to give me
 your take on Book II of Gregory
of Tours' Histories
It’s easy enough for me to say what I expect of you.  In the inverse of what Auric Goldfinger said to James Bond, I don’t expect you to die; I expect you to talk.  In other words to take a full part in the discussion groups.  And I expect you to do the work.  I expect you to engage critically with what I say, not to parrot it or slavishly agree (which would go against everything I’ve just said), but not just to stick your fingers in your ears and say ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ either.  You don’t need to agree with me to get good marks – the highest marks I’ve ever given have been for essays that disagree with me.  I don’t have to be convinced; I just have to think you’ve made a good, solidly-based argument that shows you’ve thought critically about what I’ve said, within the parameters of what can be expected of a second-year undergraduate.  And those are the parameters you’re judged against; not some abstract historical ideal but what you can be expected to know and do in (or after) a one term 2nd-year undergraduate course).


[What my students can expect of me]

That’s what I expect.  What can you expect?  Now as I see it there are certain demands on the part of students which come up again and again.  One is the issue of contact hours; the other is a concern to be taught by the senior, permanent members of staff, the currently-recognised established historians.  I understand both of these concerns, and to some extent I share them.  To take the second one first, I will say – sincerely – that being taught by the established staff-member doesn’t necessarily mean getting the best tuition.  The young grad student might very well have more enthusiasm and newer and better ideas for teaching.  But what we are going to do nevertheless on the course is swap over half way through, so that the two groups taught by [my TA] in the first half of the term will be taught by me in the second half, and vice versa.  Whether you want to see that as ensuring that you all get a turn with the big hot-shot professor or as making sure you aren’t stuck with the old lag for the whole term but get a chance with the sparky young historian too, is entirely up to you!

Now: contact hours.  Like I said, I share your concerns about this, up to a point.  What’s more I share your concerns about value, especially now you have to pay fees – which is an obscenity in my view but then it would be.  But numbers of hours are a crude measure.  You shouldn’t just think in terms of quantity but quality.  You should work to ensure that you get the most out of the small-group contact-hours you get, by being fully prepared, by having done the reading, by being willing to talk in class.  Contact hours can’t just be pushed up and up because we expect you, especially in years two and three, to prepare properly for them, so for each extra hour you get, you’d have to do more preparation.  That’s the bottom line.  The point is not for me to stand up here and tell you what to write, what to think, what you need to say to pass the exam.  I don’t think it’s what you want either, whatever you might think superficially.  If that was all that happened in a History degree, then a BA History wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s written on; in just the same way as people’s attitudes to A-Levels have changed since it became possible just to coach people to the high grades.  There’d be even greater qualification-inflation and even more expense to get them.  So think on.

What’s more if you just wanted to be told what’s what, that would contradict your concerns to be taught by the most renowned and established members of staff.  …  There’s no point in having a top-flight, internationally-respected historian just telling you what to write to pass an exam, for the simple reason that if it were that simple, a first-year PhD student could do that every bit as well.  Come to think of it, a top third-year undergraduate could tell you.  It’d be like having a Ferrari but only using it to drive down to the shops at the end of the street.  It’d be like buying Lionel Messi and using him as a ball boy.  So, if you want your money’s worth then you have to make the most of me lecturing to you on stuff that I know and am actively engaged in, or talking about it with you in class.

There will be tough stuff to grasp on this course.  It will make your head hurt at times.  It makes mine hurt sometimes.  But – and this is the most important thing – I’m here to help you with all that.  Again, if you want your money’s worth – and why wouldn’t you? – you have to make use of what’s available to you.  I’ll be available in my office hours ... and you should come and talk to me; you can e-mail me and ask questions; you can arrange an appointment at another time.  You can just bang on my door.

I’m paid to teach you.  That does not mean lowering the bar and making it all so easy that you can coast through; it means helping you to raise your game so you can get over a higher bar more easily.  Let’s be clear about that.  I’m sure you’ve had this analogy before, but think of University as like an expensive intellectual gym.  If you joined a gym with a world-class athlete as a personal trainer, you’d be mad not to make use of him or her.  But you wouldn’t expect him or her to do the exercises for you, to get fit on your behalf or lose weight for you.  The trainer’s there to help you get fit but you won’t get fit or lose weight without doing the exercises yourself and feeling the pain.  I’m the trainer.

I spent the first 11 years of my career teaching mature students so I’m used to treating my students as adults.  I expect you to behave as responsible adults and therefore to work to make sure you get the best value for money and the best education and to ensure that you get the results you want.  What you can expect of me is, as I just said, to do whatever I can to help you get intellectually into shape to make sure you do yourselves justice.  I hope we have a deal.  If we do, we’ll learn a lot, expand our minds, be able to think better about the world and – I hope – have a bit of a laugh too along the way.  If we don’t you’ll just make me angry and – believe me – you won’t like me when I’m angry.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Professor Grumpy's Historical Manifesto

[This is an edited bit of my introductory 'briefing' lecture to my new second-years yesterday.  I didn't get the feeling it went very well - I think they were expecting a 15 mins 'here's the course book and my office hours are...' rather than a full-on manifesto.  But still, I got some decent feedback later on...  A Facebook friend asked how we justify medieval history not long ago, so here's my answer.  This section came after a section about why late antiquity had attracted my interest, personally, about all the big changes that took place around 600, and about why they might be important.  That concluded, though, by asking why it mattered to know any of that.  Now read on...]


Why does any History matter?

Think of the ways in which people – maybe you – justify the study of history. I expect two themes come up: relevance and ‘how we got where we are’. I’d say, though, that no history is relevant … or alternatively that all history is equally relevant.

What do people mean when they say that history is relevant?

It’s, let’s face it, usually a justification for modern history. To understand the modern world, the argument runs, we have to understand its history. So, to understand the problems, say, of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ireland, or the Balkans, we need to know the history of those regions. Sounds reasonable, but actually we don’t. It’s no more use to study the modern history of those regions than it is to study the end of the Roman world.

Why? Well, let’s look at the problem more closely. Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area – including Scotland). Does a knowledge of the history of Serbia or Ireland help us understand his actions (let’s assume it’s a he)? No it doesn’t. For one thing, we’ll soon discover that the ‘history’ that he uses to justify his case or actions is cock-eyed and wrong. Does it help just to know the events he makes reference to, that he keeps harping on about – the Battle of Kosovo Pole or the Battle of Boyne, say? Does it help to know that in reality King Billy’s army was paid for by the Pope, or alternatively that Cromwell’s troops killed rather more English soldiers than Irish civilians at the sacks of Drogheda and Wexford? Does it help to know that for most of their history Serbs and Croats and Bosnians rubbed along together in their communities just fine (think about it; if they hadn’t, ‘ethnic cleansing’ wouldn’t have been ‘necessary’)? Does it help, when confronted by Greek nationalism (such as there’s a lot of at the moment), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the only reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is that Greek was reinvented on more classical lines, and purged of Slavic and Turkish words in the late 19th century (as was Romanian, which is the only reason why it’s as close as Italian is to Latin)? No. It might get you punched in the face but it won’t help you understand why.

Knowing 'what really happened in history' is Chronicling not history.  And it isn't much practical use outside pub quizzes*. 1: It reduces history to simple fact-finding; and simple factual recounting isn’t history. 2: It assumes that the simple course of events explains them, and thus that the course of events naturally, inevitably, led to particular outcomes (where we are today). 3: Our modern nationalists aren’t operating under compulsion from the Past. The past has no power; it’s dead and gone. It can’t make you do anything. These people are choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present. 
*Though it does provide a useful basis for undermining the claims of Nationalists and others, and that is important, it's not (and this is really my point) really history.

There’s another justification. If we’d only known more about Iraqi or Afghan history in the 20th century – so runs the argument in e.g. John Tosh’s Why History Matters – we’d have thought twice about invading because we’d have seen what would happen. What – because these people always act the same way in response to certain stimuli, according to some kind of timeless national characteristics? Isn’t that just a mite – well – racist? There are some general similarities for sure between Iraq in the 1920s and in the first decade of the 21st century but to assume that the latter state of affairs was predictable from the former is essentialist at best.

These arguments are usually deployed to bolster a claim that modern history is somehow more useful or relevant but, as I’ve just shown, they’re all a bit weak theoretically, relying on a pretty poor conception of history: history as only a collection of fact. Further they provide no justification for any sort of cut-off point in how far back we go. By their own logic, there’s no reason why, to ‘understand’ Afghanistan today you shouldn’t go all the way back to Mahmud of Ghazni in the tenth century, or to Sikhander himself, Alexander the Great, or further. For if the events of say the 1990s can only be understood by studying the events of 1900-1990, then the explanation is incomplete, because surely the events of 1900 can only be understood in terms of those of 1800-99, and the events of 1800 by those of 1700-99, and so on back to the earth cooling. A modern ‘relevance’ cut-off point is purely arbitrary and contingent and doesn’t at all follow from the logic of the argument.

So: let’s unpack the historical project and see what the really important – and relevant – elements of the analysis are. In looking at our modern nationalist and his/her relationship with the past, what are we, essentially, doing? First of all we’re showing an interest in understanding the world view of another human being – I’ll come back to that. Second, though, we’re adopting a critical stance to his or her thought or world view. Thus we’re recognising similarity in the sense of a shared humanity, but simultaneously acknowledging difference. We’re not taking the nationalist’s account as gospel truth; we’re questioning it, examining it critically. And that goes for all the voices from or about the past, or from the past about the past. History is about never believing what you’re told – taking a stance of radical scepticism. Put another way, slightly flippantly, the question we are always asking is not ‘is this bastard lying to me, but why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ (an adapted quote from a famous journalist.)

And that’s exactly it, because what we’re doing after that analysis of the evidence is trying to understand why people are acting like that. Why are they making that cock-eyed use of the past? These are questions that require not data but theoretical models, an analytical tool-kit if you like – and you can get that tool-kit from the study of any history. Thus all history is equally valid, equally relevant – or equally invalid and irrelevant if you prefer!

The true point of history, as I see it is as a basis for engaging with, and action in, the world, not a simple exercise of sitting in a library finding out stuff about the Emperor Maurice or Stalin or Philip V. That exercise of critical engagement with what you’re told is a key to that. But there are other key elements at stake.

Another key point concerns the idea that history had to be like that, that it had to have particular outcomes, that the world we know was the natural outcome of all that. But nothing is ‘just like that’. It doesn’t have to be that way. To understand change you have to see all the other possibilities that were open and that could have come about. It’s about ‘keeping faith with the impossible’. Many of the things we think of as natural ways of classifying the world aren’t natural at all: like race and sexuality. If studying late antiquity does have an advantage it is in making that very clear. Late antique people didn’t see colour as the basis for their way of organising the peoples of the world; they didn’t have concepts of homosexuality or heterosexuality. Their ideas of sexuality were quite different.

Which brings us back to understanding the other: seeing these people as humans, like us, and yet somehow different; listening carefully to their stories but critically examining them. Paying attention to alternatives and different ways of doing things isn’t about wishy-washy relativism; it’s not saying that all things are equally valid – it is about trying to understand them.

All that gives us enormously important skills in dealing with, and acting within, our world in the present. When the papers tell us that this or that category of people are doing this, or are like that, or are to blame for something else, historical analysis gives us the skills of source criticism; it also accustoms us to think twice before accepting a judgement; it allows us to try and see other possibilities, the other side of the story. If we make a judgement it will almost certainly be a more sophisticated and less extreme one, but wherever we end up it will be a more responsible and informed choice of opinion and action, and if we spread that, we do good.

There’s a humanity that permeates the entire process of historical enquiry; the critical questions we ask, the desire to understand, which we must bring from history to our everyday lives. They make it impossible in my view to cast human lives off to the demands of the market, or the nation, or the class struggle. That’s why I always say there’s a huge ethical demand involved in history. Huge. Unbearable in fact. But a good historian doesn’t switch off her critical faculties when moving from the seventh century to the twenty-first. There is a demand for commitment there. So I hope you see why I think my politics are the politics of history; they’ve after all grown out of twenty-odd years of being an historian, and I think being a pretty good one at that.

Now – all this, I am sure is making some of you a bit uncomfortable. Good. History is meant to make you uncomfortable. Clio, the muse of history, is like Jesus: she brings not peace but a sword. She will make you rethink everything you think you know; everything you think you hold dear; she will make you question everything. Everything you were brought up with; everything you thought natural. She’s not here to wrap you in cotton wool and say ‘there, there’ everything is just how it’s supposed to be. She’s not there to bring succour to your view of your country, or smooth over the bad stuff that it did, or to soothe your conscience about the massacres perpetuated in the name of your religion, or the slaughter committed by people who at least claimed to share your political beliefs. She’s there to make you uneasy. She’s there to stop you from falling victim to her evil twin, Myth. In a sense I want to free you from feeling like the past controls us; that we have to base our identities in the present upon myths. That means we don’t have to feel guilty or apologise, either – just to be aware; to understand.

Put another way, the historian is the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy. For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains,

If you believe anything at all, if you want your belief to be solid, in other words, it has to be on the basis of taking it apart and putting it back together on the basis of radical scepticism.

Politicians of all sorts – left and right - always want to control the teaching of history. History is a real political football, and in the light of what I’ve just been saying you can see why. It’s about not believing what you’re told without close scrutiny; it’s about trying to understand the other; it’s about trying to see and evaluate another point of view. That makes history potentially VERY dangerous. What a history degree should be is three years of thinking dangerously. And the sixth and seventh centuries are as good a thing to think dangerously with as any other era.

So, voilà. That’s my historical manifesto. You can read my views on this sort of thing at various stages of development on my blog. The main thing is that that’s what I want this course to do – to bring out this sort of critical ethical tool-kit through the study of an interesting, and important period of change.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

'Bournville Tech' IAA Closure: Latest

At the institution that we at Historian on the Edge like, for legal reasons, to refer to as 'Bournville Tech' ("Bastards: We got 'em") someone has put key documents on the web relating to the closure of its Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity.  It's revealing stuff and all too emblematic of the climate of UKHE.  Read about it and find the links here, and do what you can do to help, not least by bringing pressure on the pretty loathsome senior management team of VC 'Harry Callaghan' and dean 'Maurikios Copronymos'.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Decline and Fall of the Ancient Triumph

[Next week I'm off to a conference in Berlin on the triumph in the classical world - with brilliant timing I'll get back the day before term starts and I am reintroduced to normal actual work after 3 years of Leverhulme-funded thinking-luxury.  My paper has a very dull title so I have substituted a better one that I didn't think of at the time.  My argument is that although victory remained absolutely central to royal ideals and imagery, there was a crucial change between the late Roman and the early medieval western worlds.  Although key features remained (processions etc.) there was a decisive shift of emphasis towards Christian celebration prsided over by the church, towards thanksgiving rather than praise and towards Old Testament imagery.  You won't be surprised that I think that this shift took place after the Justinianic wars of the mid-sixth century! I then attempt to explain this in terms of the shift in ideological bases caused by the Justinianic wars and the end of the Roman Empire, a more Christian mode of thought in which credit for victory was not appropriately given to mortal warriors, however skilful, to a change in the 'geo-political' nature of the west and perhaps t a difference in the type of warfare being waged.  It's preliminary and doubtless needs refinement and development, but see what you think of this first sketch.
N.b.: There are typos, stylistic infelicities and dates that are wrong, all of which I haven't been bothered to correct, so don't rely on it in detail!]


In agreeing to give this paper, I must say that I feel that I accepted something of a poisoned chalice. I placed myself in the unenviable position of trying to find something to say about, or a position to take on, post-imperial triumphal rulership that added in some way to Michael McCormick’s excellent treatment of the subject from twenty-six years ago. It is not an easy task to try and build on a book that has deservedly held the field for almost three decades. Nonetheless I will try! I will, of necessity, have to open with a brief recapitulation of some of the main points made by McCormick, but then I will suggest two slightly different avenues down which analysis might be pursued, and then – and this is related to my current principal research project – suggest that a key moment of changed in the West occurred in the generations either side of AD 600.

The Persistence of Victorious Rulership

The Agilulf plaque from Val di Nievole

One thing that certainly persisted from the classical world through late antiquity and into the early medieval period was the importance of military success to the notion of good kingship. McCormick demonstrated that very clearly. McCormick was able to assemble plentiful and impressive evidence of the continuation of kings being styled as triumphator or given other ostentatiously victorious epithets and titles; kings were addressed and praised in poetic and other works as victorious leaders; they continued to hold victorious parades, some of which still bore some trappings of imperial Roman triumphal ritual; other public rituals celebrated victories and humiliated the defeated; they were depicted visually in ways that echoed earlier Roman ideas of the victorious king. An example given is the well-known Valdinievole plate showing the Lombard king Agilulf receiving the submission of barbarous enemies and flanked by winged victories. Alas, research by Cristina La Rocca and Stefano Gasparri casts some reasonable doubt on the authenticity of this piece. But the general point stands. From the late Roman period through to the Carolingian Empire, the centrality of military success to the concept of good rulership remained a constant.

There are indeed few times and places in the earlier Middle Ages where kings were not expected to lead their armies in person and to win battles. In that sense the importance of victory might be said to have been even greater than it had been during the Empire. The penalties for failure were high. At the very end of the period that I studied in my 2003 book on warfare, the Emperor Charles III – the so-called Charles the Fat – can be argued to have lost his throne because of his perceived failures against the Vikings. It has been very cogently argued by Simon MacLean that, in the abstract, the actions that Charles took to defend his realm were no different from those pursued by previous members of his dynasty. Nonetheless, in the precise political circumstances of 888 the failure actively to defeat the Vikings in battle presented a golden opportunity to Charles’ enemies to portray him as a Bad King. Not least because the leader of his opponents, Count Odo, had been able to be presented as waging a heroic defence of Paris against the odds while Charles did nothing. Within the year Charles had been deposed and died. Over a hundred years previously, the Mercian king Æthelbald was killed at night by his own bodyguard, in an evidently shocking act of betrayal even by Mercian standards. It seems plausible to associate this with the battle, two years previously, at Burford, where Æthelbald was beaten by the West Saxons, over whom he had claimed overlordship. Again, the picture is not so simple; some evidence suggests that Æthelbald had restored his dominance over the south; nonetheless the talismanic value of battlefield success or failure remained high. If we continue our journey backwards through time towards the Roman era, we can see further examples. The defeat of the Austrasian army by the Thuringians in the 630s left Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine in tatters, and nothing illustrates this better than Fredegar’s pathetic image of the young king Sigibert III sitting, weeping on his horse at the rout of his army by the rebellious Duke Radulf. Sixth-century Visigothic kings knew better than anyone the price of failure. At least two kings appear to have been killed or deposed as a result of military failure: Theudis was killed shortly after a defeat outside Ceuta; Agila faced a revolt and lost his crown after suffering a defeat at the hands of the citizens of Cordoba.

The principal exception seems to have been the Merovingian Frankish kings between the death of Chlothar I and perhaps that of Chlothar’s last surviving son Guntramn of Burgundy in 592. Although Chlothar’s sons had commanded armies in their father’s lifetime, they rarely led military forces when they were kings, usually delegating such a role to their dukes and patricians. Yet, to examine the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus is very quickly to discover that there was no evident lessening of the importance of war-leadership in the list of kingly virtues. Gregory of Tours seems, to judge from the Preface to Book V of the Histories, not necessarily to have had a problem with external warfare as a mark of good kingship; it was of civil war, within the regnum francorum, which he disapproved. Whether or not one believes it to be sincere (and I do not), the diatribe against Chilperic at Histories VI.46 makes a similar point. The diatribe takes the standard points of good kingship in turn and flips them into their negative. Rather than being a great war-leader, Chilperic was simply a ravager and desecrator of his own lands. It would seem, therefore, that such was the success of the Merovingians in establishing themselves securely on the Frankish throne that – like the Roman Emperors in some periods, they had no need to demonstrate their martial ability in person, but could garner the laurels from any victories won by their subordinates – while simultaneously evading the negative effects of defeat. This seems to have been a short-lived phase. By the later 590s, in a development probably not unrelated to the general crisis being experienced by the Frankish kingdoms at that point, the grandsons and great-grandsons of Chlothar I had returned to leading their armies in person. This may have remained the case throughout the rest of the Merovingian period, at least where kings had come of age.

Change in Victory Celebration

Yet, if we return to Spain, we may find some instances of changes to which I would assign more significance than did McCormick. Two texts can be placed alongside each other – McCormick cited both. First we can take Isidore of Seville’s discussion of the triumph. The point I want to make (McCormick made it too) is that it is entirely cast in the past tense. This is what the Romans did. There’s absolutely no sense that this sort of thing goes on any longer. McCormick rightly pointed out that, whatever the impression given by Isidore, victory processions certainly persisted through the seventh century. Indeed they did but there is, in my view, a crucial shift. McCormick makes a slight sleight of hand; the Visigoths had a liturgy for triumphant return from war but the liturgy for the profectio belli ceremony is not about triumph. It is a ceremony for divine blessing before the start of a war. It still demonstrates the importance of victory and warfare, for sure, and it has Roman connotations, if with contemporary Byzantium rather than with the late Empire, but a triumph it is not and in that sense it contradicts Isidore not at all. Even if McCormick is right, though, and the liturgy for victorious return looked much the same, there are crucial changes to be noted.

Obviously, the ceremony is Christian, but Christian elements had intruded into Roman and post-imperial victory celebrations for some time before that. The concentration on church ritual is interesting. Certainly this looks qualitatively different from what we can detect of royal victory ritual in the later fifth and early sixth centuries, which were firmly within the late Roman tradition. Victorious kings – like Theudebert I of Austrasia when he took over the rule of Provence in the 530s – held celebrations in the circuses, like later Roman emperors. The triumphal entry into towns is referred to and, as we shall see in a moment, victorious titles of entirely Roman nature were used. McCormick was able to assemble an impressive body of evidence for these practices. As intimated, they are entirely in harmony with the victory celebrations of contemporary emperors and this is probably not coincidental. As stated, the focus on Church ceremony seems different, even if victorious kings and emperors attended church as part of earlier celebrations (as Clovis did in 507), and even if public procession remained an element of later victory ritual. What seems to me to have happened is an important shift in the relative importance of the elements. In this sense I propose that Isidore’s setting of the classical triumph in the past tense is not surprising or coincidental. The importance of victory to rulers remained; triumphal processions there still were too; but nothing that looked like a triumph. Even Clovis’ procession through Tours in 507, to which I will shortly return, which diverged considerably from the proper Roman way of doing things, will have looked, I suggest, more like a triumph than anything Isidore might have seen.

What interests me now is the particularly Old Testament emphasis. The liturgy draws upon the book of The Wisdom of Solomon as the king receives the banner and goes to war. This is interesting given the usual stress upon peace that was involved in early medieval Solomonic kingship, recently discussed at length by Paul Kershaw, but to me it seems emblematic of the shift towards the Old Testament in royal ideology that had occurred between the earlier and later sixth century. If one were to reprise the theme taken up by Daly in his important 1994 article on Clovis – ‘How pagan, how barbaric?’ – it’s interesting to compare Gregory’s treatment of the 507 campaign with what seems to be more contemporary data. Gregory describes Clovis’ triumphal return to Tours after Vouillé in terms that can be and have been assimilated into a straightforward late antique tradition. Indeed, as we shall see shortly, the procession, the distribution of coin, the acclamation, are wholly in keeping with other royal triumphal celebrations (let’s call them that) of the early sixth century. Gregory says that Clovis was thenceforth called consulus aut augustus, a phrase that most historians have been want to dismiss as a misunderstanding. I am less confident of that. In the context of the rather strange half-century between 476 and 526 it seems to me entirely possible that a Frankish king might have allowed himself to be acclaimed as augustus, just as his contemporary Theodoric of Italy allowed one of the Decii to erect an inscription describing him as gloriosissimus adque anclytus rex … victor et triumfator semper augustus. Whichever attitude one takes, one is left with the idea that this was most likely information from closer to Clovis’ own day.

On the other hand, when Gregory turns to describe a miracle that predicted the Frankish victory, Clovis’ messengers entered the Church of Saint Martin, Tours, just as the priest intoned Psalm 17:40-41 ‘you girt me with strength in war and you cast down beneath me those who had risen up against me and you gave me the backs of my enemies’ (cp 2 Sam. 22:41) – a prophecy fulfilled when the Goths turn their backs iuxta consuetudinem in battle. This Old Testament language seems to fit with Gregory’s very Old Testament Clovis. Indeed, the next miracle concerns a pillar of fire such as appeared before the Israelites (and seems to be taken from Venantius’ Miracles of Saint Hilary). ‘Giving me their backs’ seems not far removed from the reference to the calcatio colli (Deut. 33.29) in Visigothic liturgy and other seventh-century sources. It may be reasonable to assume that it comes from a source closer to Gregory’s own day (the 570s at that stage of the Histories). After the defeat of an Arian uprising in Spain in 588, the inhabitants of Mérida celebrated like the ancients (in this case meaning the Israelites, which is significant in itself) and celebrated in the open, singing the victory song of Moses. Gregory’s contemporary John of Biclar described a Gothic victory over the Franks in the same or next year in entirely Old Testament language. And so on.

Explaining the Change

What might explain this shift of emphasis? To me, this seems to fit with a range of other evidence that suggests that the traditional, Roman bases for royal (and other) ideologies had ceased to be viable after the Justinianic wars of the sixth-century. With an emperor proclaiming the West to have been ‘lost’ to barbarians, continued reference to Roman ideals and bases of authority were simply no longer as viable. New sources were sought and these were readily available in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament; long established virtues – wisdom, piety, justice, victory – could continue to be celebrated but in different language with different exemplars. In the 580s a Frankish prince was even named Samson, which might have been an attempt to recast the dynasty with its long hair in more Old Testament mode.

As part of these changes may have come a change in the ways in which people thought about victory. In 2003 I opened my book about warfare with a discussion of the fact that, for a society in which warfare played such a prominent role, there was a puzzling lack of attention to any sort of military detail in contemporary accounts of battles. This contrasted sharply with classical Greece, for example, where tactics were analogous and battle waged at similarly brutally close-quarters. At the end of a somewhat inconclusive treatment, the best that I could do by way of conclusion was to suggest that – as several early medieval writers said – whatever tactical skill one had, ultimately battle was such a lottery that the outcome could only reasonably be placed in the hands of God. This in itself suggests why there appears to have been a significant shift towards religious, ritual investment in the stages before battle compared with those afterwards, and why there appears to have been a shift from celebrating the military victor towards giving thanks to God for the judgement He made in awarding your side victory. Thus, during battles divine signs are often given – particularly to holy men – that one side has been victorious, underlining the Almighty’s role in determining victory. In the late seventh century, the Anglo-Saxon holy man Cuthbert, for example received a vision that the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith had been defeated and killed by the Picts at the precise moment of his death. In this context it seems not unexpected that it would be hubris in the extreme to publically glorify a king or commander for winning a battle when credit for the victory came from God. This was a point that Gregory of Tours made many times in the course of the Histories. Perhaps the most obvious illustration was the fate of Sigibert of Austrasia in late 575. Having defeated his brother Chilperic and hemmed him into the town of Tournai, Sigibert ignored the advice of Saint Germanus of Paris and proceeded to attend the siege and finish his brother off. While there he allowed himself to be hailed as king by the Neustrian Franks and elevated on a shield. And that was precisely the moment that he was slain by assassins sent by Chilperic.

Another possible explanation for the decline and fall of the Triumph might be sought more squarely in Roman ideas. Ammianus Marcellinus, in his well-known account of Constantius II’s triumph in Rome, expresses the view that celebrating a triumph over Romans was regarded as bad form. One feature that emerged as a result of fifth-century politics, and was underlined by the middle of the sixth century, was that no western ruler had decisively acquired the mantle of Rome in such a way that he could celebrate his wars as victories over barbarians. It’s interesting that Theoderic of Italy seems to have done this after his troops conquered Provence in 508. In the early medieval West, warfare tended to be endemic and small-scale. When major victories were won, they were celebrated, but rarely if ever did they involve the utter conquest of a people, with their king dragged in irons through the streets. The shaming of beaten rebels has Roman roots (and biblical reference points too) but it does not seem to me to be quite the same thing. In that sense, the sort of warfare that was represented by the triumph just does not seem to have existed in the early medieval period.

Whichever way one looks at it, whether ideologically or militarily, Isidore’s view is symptomatic. While victory remained of central importance to kingship, there was no longer any place for anything as antiquated as a triumph.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

... And there's more

Here and especially here.  That latter link I think should be shared as widely as possible.

The headline news is that if you're off to NCHumz to study history, what you'll get for your £18k is a course directed by someone - a senior lecturer indeed - less than three years out of her PhD and with medieval history taught by an 'expert' less than a year out of his.  Plus some piece-rate hired hands I shouldn't wonder.  Not forgetting the occasional walk-on part by someone you've seen on the TV or heard on the radio (but who, strictly entre nous, isn't actually regarded as that good, except in their own estimation).  Their most (allegedly) stellar appointment has a publications list of a book and a half dozen articles.  For half that price you could go any number of places (not least the University of Poppleton) and be taught by a whole string of people considerably more established and more internationally renowned (and probably, well, just better) than any of this gaggle.  But, fair's fair, they do do a lot of broadcasting, so when you're back home at the old ancestral pile, after 'Hilary Term' (or whatthefuckever) you will be able to point them out on the telly to mater and pater.  

You'll see on the NCHumz history site, by the way, a lot of references to how their brilliant young stars 'took' double firsts at St Fithfroths.  Now, if like me you're a jolly old oik, you might not know what that means.  Sounds good though, no?  Actually it just means they got a first in their 2nd-year exams as well as their finals.  It's just that the rest of us who do that aren't allowed to call their degree a double first (any more than we're allowed to pay a fiver and have our BAs 'promoted' to MAs).  I got a first in my second-year exams and I took a joint honours (archaeology-history) degree so, if we were, I guess that'd be a quadruple first, right?

Ah but alas and alack.  The senior lecturer and course-convenor (aet.?30/31) has taken to the Twittersphere to accuse me and Voley of being bigots.  Apparently we're morons too, who don't know about real research.  Oh well, that's the professional way, I guess.

So in the meantime let me leave the last word to the Vole, who puts things better than I:
So to be clear: The New College of the Humanities is a reactionary, outdated, private-equity funded bastion of snobbery and washed-up academic approaches with TV stars on the banners and underpaid toilers in the class rooms. It is a finishing school for rich people who want their world-views reinforced rather than challenged. It deliberately excludes the knowledge-hungry poor and its imminent failure is going to be very satisfying indeed.
Oh - and it's considerably less than straight about its financial basis too.

Monday, 24 September 2012

NChumz Latest

From the mighty 'Plashing Vole' here.  Remember the academic supergroup discussed here?  Apparently only 1/3 of their places were filled.  Even more selective than they'd hoped, eh?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A latter-day Venantius Fortunatus...

... is revealed, through the magic of the Interweb (here), to be alive and well and living (probably in a bush in Peter Brown's garden) near Princeton.  I'm all in favour of this new genre of e-panegyric or, if you're from Lancashire (or indeed New Mexico*) eee-panegyric.

I brought Peter Brown breakfast in bed once.  I'll never forget it.  He looked at me in that beneficent way of his and, with his effortless - indeed matchless - grace and eloquence, said 'Who the hell are you and how the f*ck did you get into my house?'

* Not even.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Russia: at a turning point?

The three members of Pussy Riot arrested for briefly singing a protest song against Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour have been sentenced to two years' imprisonment.  This and, rather more so, their trial is pretty shocking, but let's pause briefly before we get on our high horses, shall we?  Do we imagine that a punk outfit that jumped over the rails in Saint Paul's and sang a protest song against Cameron and The Cuts would automatically just be allowed to get on with it?  It doesn't take very much imagination to see them being charged with 'public order offences'.  Maybe no custodial sentence would ensue, it's true, but before we link the undoubtedly unjust sentence with Putin's regime specifically, let's stop and remember that last year two British lads were sent down for four years for writing 'let's start a riot, LOL' (or something very like that) on Facebook.  Any finger-pointing at Putin from the UK about making the punishment fit the crime needs a little bit of relativising and self-awareness first.  (See also here for Germany and here for France, in case you think this is purely British hypocrisy...)

Be that as it may, the whole process has been pretty ludicrous, thuggish and unjust; let me be clear that that's my opinion of it.  But it's also been pretty inept.  Someone close to one of the women on trial (perhaps the husband of one) said that this was 'worse than Stalin's show trials'; at least they had respect for procedure, he said.  Ahem.  In a Stalinist show trial, close associates of the accused would not have been allowed to communicate regularly with the wider world, sharing reports and opinions of what the trial was about, and its breaches of procedure.  In a Stalinist trial cack-handed, blatant refusals to allow even-handed legal treatment would not have been televised.  It is difficult to imagine the judge at any Stalinist trial behaving like the judge presiding over the Pussy Riot trial, not because they were fairer but because the whole thing would have been much more efficiently stage-managed.  The girls would have been brought in, confessed to commiting crimes against the proletariat, sentenced, taken to some dingy basement or courtyard in the Lubyanka and shot in the back of the head.  Call that showing greater respect for procedure if you will.  No.  The real point about the Pussy Riot trial is that, in Russia, they don't do show trials like they used to. (By contrast, look at the one-day murder trial that took place in China during the same period.)

But that could all change.  As I see it, Russians stand at a cross-roads.  They can accept the verdict and Putin's crack-downs and open the way back to 'proper' show trials like in the good old days; or they can make a stand and maintain the progress made since the 80s that has so obviously left people, that has so obviously left the whole system, so thoroughly unable to conduct a proper show trial to make an example of dissidents.  For myself, I think that the women will spend a few weeks in jail and then Putin will pardon them, thus getting the best of all worlds - showing just how he can (if he wants) clamp down on minor protests against him, while at the same time demonstrating his clemency.  The Orthodox Church has already asked for such a pardon.  I hope I'm right.  In this regard, maybe the worst thing the West can do is to protest too much against Pussy Riot's sentencing.  The one thing that will harden Putin's resolve is looking like he is giving in to western pressure.

That issue is where Russia needs to make a decision.  Putin is popular because he is strong.  Not just because he hunts bears (raarrr) but because he doesn't do what anyone wants (cp. Syria).  This spreads further into Russian political life.  Gay Pride marches have been banned in Moscow for 100 years.  After Yeltsin (a drunken disgrace), this looks good to Russians, and I guess in some ways that's understandable.  What it seems to me that the Russian people have to ask themselves is whether any action, regardless of its morality, or its consequences, is good if it makes Mother Russia look as though she's not doing what her old enemies want her to, or whether they can see that maturity as a nation, and a place at the table of leading nations, does not require unbending confrontation.  There is another way than a political equivalent of the old football chant of 'Everyone hates us and we don't care'.  Russia has a long tradition of 'strong' domestic autocracy, for sure, but it has rarely led to a great deal of respect or power abroad (cp. the Russo-Turkish War; the Russo-Japanese War; WWI; etc.).  Wilful orneriness is not the only path to being taken seriously.  Other forms of leadership are available, at home and abroad.  Compassion doesn't equal weakness.  An example can be shown to the West in quite different, more ethical ways (see above on the weak grounds for British finger-pointing).  Maybe this is (as ever) all pie in the sky stuff, but ultimately that's for the people of Russia to decide.  I hope they do the right thing; do what is (in reality) the strong thing, and turn their back on Putin's autocracy.  That is the way to being respected.

Two worlds become one: A ‘Counter-Intuitive’ View of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ Migration

[This is a draft of a piece I am writing for a special issue of German History on migration and German history.  It needs another thorough edit and it lacks critical apparatus.  Essentially the argument is that the Roman Empire and barbaricum were inextricably linked throughout the Roman Iron Age.  By late antiquity Germanic-speaking trans-Rhenan areas were inundated with imperial influence.  Migration was two-way and in various forms, all of which, including large-scale 'folk movement' were normal, part and parcel of the imperial frontier's dynamics.  Those of you who know my work will not be surprised by any of that.  The new aspect, although it it is really a development of what I've been writing recently on migration, the North Sea Cultural Zone, etc., is the 'counter-intuitive' conclusion that the relationship between the existence of a formal frontier and significant migration is quite the opposite of the one we have grown used to thinking of.  The collapse of the frontier took with it the mechanisms for migration.  Therefore I have to modify my 2007 epigram that 'the end of the Roman Empire produced the Barbarian Invasions and not vice versa'.  The end of the Roman Empire put an end to the barbarian migrations.  This conclusion helps us contribute more responsibly to modern debate on migration.  It also contributes to a discussion of the formation of Germany.  The end of migration changed the political dynamics of the regions between Rhine and Baltic.  The latter became more inward-facing and from these, eventually, emerged 'Germany'.]


The place of the so-called ‘Barbarian Migrations’ in German history is a topic riddled with irony. The Völkerwanderung are central to any survey of migration, the nation state, of nationalism and German history. Yet, the events of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries themselves have precious little to do with nations, with states or even with Germany, at least insofar as any of these terms is currently understood. Nor indeed, contrary to its usual label, can this period be distinguished from others as the migration period. Even in more traditional visions of the period, the linkage between the formation of a German identity and the migration of peoples contains its share of irony; in most national myths the primordial migration brings the founders of the nation to the land which bears their name. In the Völkerwanderungszeit, by contrast, the migrants who became so important to later German politics and identity left the region subsequently known as Germany. A region riven with conflict between independent, effectively (if not, technically, legally) sovereign polities was unified partly by appeal to a shared national identity, though the historical attractiveness of such an identity lay largely in the fact that this ‘nation’ was believed to have left its homeland and conquered much – indeed most – of the rest of Europe. The migrating ‘Germans’ played at least as important a role in the political foundation legends (and debates about them) of Spain, France and Italy. So, for all that the conquests of the Germanic barbarians became a source of German national pride, the German nation itself was descended from those of the Germani who had stayed at home! Further irony consists in the fact that the idea that all speakers of a Germanic language could be treated together as a unified ‘Germanic’ people stemmed ultimately from the fact that outsiders, principally Romans, had dealt with all such barbarians interchangeably for their own chauvinistic reasons.

The historiography of the ‘Barbarian Migrations’ has been well studied; a brief résumé will suffice. As is fairly widely known, the term Völkerwanderung was coined in 1557 in Vienna by Wolfgang Laz (Lazius; 1514-65). Cut off from the Roman civilisation then allegedly being revived in more southerly regions, antiquaries across the north of Europe sought ways of including their territories within classical history and of creating a distinct ‘Germanic antiquity’. Had not, indeed, the Germans conquered the Roman Empire and established their kingdoms in its wreckage? The entire Middle Ages could thus be seen as a Germanic creation. In the nineteenth century, the great project editing the texts of the Middle Ages labelled its volumes ‘the Historic Monuments of Germany’ (Monumenta Germaniae Historica). These ideas were powerful tools in German unification, in overcoming centuries of armed hostility between, say, Bavarians and Prussians. Some were used to justify the annexation of Alsace and the Moselle in 1871. The binary opposition between Romania and Germania remained crucial in structuring early medieval studies throughout Europe.

The notion that the wandering Germans had a foundational role in western civilisation, predating that of Rome, found its apogee in the work of Gustav Kossinna (1858-1931). A mix of linguistics, folklore and archaeology led Kossinna to promote the idea that Indo-European civilisation was created by migrating Aryan proto-Germans. The Nazis made much use of these and similar ideas, justifying, beyond general ideas of racial superiority, the annexation of northern France and the proposed renaming of Sevastopol as Theoderichshafen (because the Germanic-speaking Goths had come from that region). The Nazis employed other strands of history relating to the Migrations, particularly the idea that Germanic ‘peoples’ were formed by a war-leader and his followers. This contradicted a rival view of the peoples of Germania as, essentially, proto-democratic communes of freemen – in opposition to Roman hierarchy and tyranny. Archaeology was pressed into service to bolster all these claims.

When the horrific results of this abuse of history were apparent, in the Second World War’s aftermath, a certain back-tracking took place. Rather than being viewed as pure, ‘Germanic’ peoples, the gentes who migrated into the western Roman Empire were interpreted as poly-ethnic. In this (as subsequently dubbed) ‘ethnogenesis’ interpretation, warriors of all origins could be incorporated into a group by subscription to a body of foundation legends, customs and law. This was less of a break with the history of the Nazi period than was once thought; the role of the leader and his Gefolgschaft remained paramount. Archaeological methods avowedly eschewed Kossinna and his fellows’ Mischargumentation (the admixture of various forms of information) for a ‘purer’ form of archaeological reasoning. In fact, this method was predicated on a series of historical assumptions about the Germanic peoples. Nineteenth-century preconceptions about the Germans and their migrations remain fundamental to much writing about the post-imperial period, even if they are rarely directly acknowledged.

Many of these ideas have come under close scrutiny as researchers have re-examined the written and especially the archaeological evidence. The concept of ethnic identity has been thoroughly reassessed, starting from anthropological work on the mutability of ethnicity. The amount of change produced by the migrations and the extent to which post-imperial and medieval western culture and social structures were derived from ‘Germanic’ influences have been radically questioned. In extreme cases, even the reality of migration has been denied.

However, something of an academic counter-revolution against the advances in the study of the ‘Migration Period’ has taken place. Oxford-trained historians have led the way, publishing books repeating the same argument: the barbarian migrations involved real ‘peoples on the move’, and they brought down the Roman Empire. This has stimulated traditionalist archaeologists into a backlash against more nuanced interpretations of the material record. Whatever their authors’ politics, there can be no doubt that these works have been written sufficiently carelessly as to provide succour to far-right extremists. The barbarian migrations have become a popular metaphor amongst racists – a Google search for ‘nouveaux barbares’ will yield many pages of ‘Front National’ diatribe against Muslim and eastern European immigrants. The Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik dwelt more on the Crusades as his preferred historical model but it is nevertheless significant that he described the killings as ‘a small barbarian act to prevent a larger barbarian act’, the latter being the supposed take-over of Europe by Muslim immigrants. In a speech in Rome, the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders spoke at length about the Barbarian Invasions and the Fall of Rome as a lesson from history about immigration’s dangers. The metaphor is not limited to extremists; it has worked its way into more mainstream conservative comment, in direct relationship to modern scholarship on Barbarian Migrations. A German newspaper reviewed a museum exhibition set out according to traditional paradigms, arguing that it showed how little comfort we, with ‘a new Völkerwanderung into our Imperium’ could draw from the history of the Empire, with hardly any sign of ‘multiculturalism’, where the migration of peoples meant, besides ‘acculturation’, above all ‘plunder, burning and death on a massive scale’.

The use of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methodologies to examine migration adds an alarming extra dimension. The use of DNA, whether ‘ancient’ (from excavated material) or ‘modern’ samples (from living populations), is being used to track migration. The danger, barely addressed (at best dismissed as a purely political, ‘ideological’ objection), is of reducing ethnicity to biology and thus to something close to the nineteenth-century idea of race, at the basis of the ‘nation state’. Yet a DNA chain no more has an ethnic identity than does a bronze buckle. What is at stake in fifth- to seventh-century western European history is not the reality of migration; migration is a constant of human existence. It is why migration and ethnic change became so powerfully linked and such an important feature of socio-political change. Science can tell us nothing about any of that.

A reconsideration of the migrations and their place in history is therefore timely. Here I will set out a new framework for thinking about Roman-Barbarian relationships and the way in which these shaped migratory patterns and mechanisms in the late and post-imperial periods. My intention is to provide a basis for a more politically and ethically-responsible intervention by historians in modern political debate.


As intimated above, fundamental to traditional interpretations is the view of the migrating barbarians as ‘Germanic’ – even as ‘Germans’. Partly this stems from Roman ethno-geography, most notably Tacitus’ Germania, which bracketed together all those ‘fair-haired races’ who could not be included under the heading of ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’. That definition proved tricky even then; Graeco-Roman writers readily admitted that Gauls and Germani were closely related. Linguistically, we can justify a grouping on the basis that all these peoples spoke a related form of Indo-European language, whether East, West or North Germanic. Such a modern definition, however, does not equate with the classical idea of the Germani. At least the ruling stratum of the Goths, who have in recent decades become something of a paradigm for ‘Germanic migrations’, spoke a Germanic language but they were not considered Germani by Graeco-Roman authors, who usually saw them as ‘Scythians’ or as descendants of other peoples recorded in the same region like the Getae.

No sense of a shared Germanic identity existed amongst trans-Rhenan barbarians, except possibly within the Empire and under the aegis of classical ethnography, when the Romans, on the basis of their world-view, grouped such barbarians together into military units. Usually the different political groups east of the Rhine and north of the upper Danube were perfectly happy to fight each other, especially for Roman pay. Walter Goffart has argued that awareness of a common identity and past, based upon linguistic kinship, is first attested during Frankish campaigns against the Muslims in Spain and southern France. The similarity between Gothic and Frankish personal names was noted. The comprehensive rejection of the idea of a unifying Germanic ethos and identity amongst pre-migratory Germani removes the classic basis for the nineteenth-century view of the German people as rooted in distant history. It is now well established that there is no ‘German history’ before the ninth-century creation of the Eastern Frankish kingdom and the fostering of an identity separate from that of the West Franks. Unlike French and German, which distinguish between ancient and modern ‘Germans’ (germains and allemands; Germanen and Deutsch), English no longer has such a linguistic resource. Henceforth, therefore, I will use the Latin Germani to describe the groups bracketed under that heading by the Romans, and enclose the term Germanic in inverted commas except where discussing linguistics.

Nonetheless, ‘Germanic’ and even ‘German’ remain in use in discussions of the Migration-period, masking a swathe of uncritical assumptions. This is especially, though far from universally, true amongst archaeologists. Certain cultural features, principally furnished inhumation (burial with grave-goods) and types of sunken hut (Grubenhäuser) are habitually described as ‘Germanic’. Their presence or appearance in a region is thus taken to denote the appearance of ‘Germanic’ immigrants. The inheritance of the nineteenth-century (and earlier) notion of pan-Germanic culture is the ludicrous idea that all Germani had some sort of access to a common range of cultural traits, upon which they could draw at will. The appearance of, for example, inhumation with weapons in an area known historically to have been settled by Germani can be described as an indication of that settlement, even if the people in question never used such a rite in their homeland. The description is justified by the fact that somewhere in the huge Germanic-speaking region between the North Sea and Ukraine, another ‘Germanic’ group did bury its dead in this way. When shorn of, however unconscious, Germanist assumptions, the archaeological data rarely provide prima facie support for the interpretation. The attempt to change this intellectually careless state of affairs is making only slow process.

Imperial-barbarian relationships

The persistence of the assumption of a unified ‘Germanic’ culture is one area where the notion of a binary opposition between Roman and barbarian worlds is manifested. Its roots lie, again, in classical ethnography. At least some Roman authors viewed the world in these terms, with the imperium Romanum surrounded by hostile gentes. The idea that natural antagonism dominated Roman-Barbarian relationships pervades popular and academic views of late antiquity. A common interpretation of the late imperial frontiers sees them as a straining dam. It envisages the barbarians of Germania Magna piling up against them until, in the early fifth century, they could no longer hold back the tide. When that happened – maintaining the aquatic metaphors beloved of studies of the migrations – the barbarians ‘flooded’ in, in ‘waves’, ‘swamping’ the Roman provinces.

This vision has been redressed in academic work; sadly, that correction has rarely been taken beyond the halls of academe. When it has, it has frequently been dismissed as mere ‘liberal’ political correctness – sometimes, sadly, by academic historians writing in public fora. There are a number of elements to the revisionist argument. The first concerns the nature and even the existence of an imperial Roman frontier ‘policy’, or ‘Grand Strategy’, to use the term employed by Edward Luttwak in a notorious volume published in 1976. Luttwak, a US defence analyst, viewed the Roman situation very much through the prism of the then current situation in Western Europe, where NATO forces confronted those of the Soviet Bloc across a long, fortified frontier. Whilst the contemporary resonance of Luttwak’s ideas was transparent – even down to the notion of ‘defence in depth’, Luttwak’s preferred NATO ‘Grand Strategy’, which (funnily enough) he saw as adopted in the later Roman period – the idea that the Roman and Barbarian worlds confronted each other as separate, opposed entities, rather like the Western powers and their Soviet antagonists, remains deeply entrenched. Just as western propaganda presented the ‘Russians’ as ready to invade the West the very instant the latter let its guard down, the idea implicit in much writing about the Late Roman Empire is that the barbarians were similarly, perpetually watching and waiting for their chance to overrun imperial territories.

Why this should have been the case is (as with the theories of automatic Soviet aggression) rarely explored in any depth. Barbarians were just like that. Few people have expressed the preconception as clearly as did Henri Pirenne in the 1920s: the barbarians were irresistibly drawn towards the Mediterranean, ‘happy regions where the mildness of the climate and the fertility of the soil were matched by the charms and the wealth of civilization’. The reality of such a proto-Germanic ‘Drang nach Suden’ need not detain us. Suffice it to say that this putative intention is largely derived, ex post facto, from the contingent fact that some Germanic-speaking barbarian groups finished their wanderings on the shores of the Middle Sea. The mechanisms of migration will receive further discussion below. For now all that needs to be said is that the traditional assumption of a natural barbarian desire to conquer the Roman Empire lacks empirical foundation.

Luttwak’s concept of a Grand Strategy has received detailed critique. At a basic operational level, it has been argued that the Romans had no notion of a Grand Strategy. Frontier activity tended to be local, ad hoc and contingent. The idea that the Later Empire saw the development of a strategy of ‘defence in depth’ has been dismantled. The deeper frontier belts of the later Empire resulted more from the demands of supply in a period when the armed forces were largely paid in kind and received their supplies from the state rather than buying them in local markets. Spreading the troops more evenly through a largely militarised and state-controlled frontier region, such as Northern Gaul, made more sense in this context. While the danger of barbarian raiding cannot and should not be discounted, the defence of interior strong-points also stemmed from the need to protect the late imperial tax and supply network’s nodal points. Banditry and rebellion (often fused in Roman ideology) were as much a danger as barbarian attack – perhaps more so. The old idea that the short walled circuits of late Roman cities resulted from haste and emergency, during the barbarian invasions of the 270s, has been rejected on numerous grounds. That the Romans moved from ‘preclusive security’ to ‘defence in depth’ is belied by the heavy expenditure on frontier fortifications during the fourth century, as late as Valentinian I’s reign (364-75). Finally, the separation of Roman forces into border forces (limitanei and ripenses) and field armies (comitatenses) is unlikely to have reflected the postulated strategy of holding up barbarians in a deep fortified belt until mobile field armies could move up and destroy them. Apart from the fact that the distinction between the two types of troops was more fluid than might be supposed, the speed of communications and movement in Late Antiquity undermine Luttwak and his followers’ attempt to transpose modern strategy onto the Roman Empire. Mobile field armies composed of the Empire’s best troops and located close to the emperor himself developed during the turbulent third century and certainly resulted mostly from the desire to keep a large force of the best troops close to the ruler and thus away from any challengers for power.

If there were general strategic principles in operation, governing to some extent the otherwise ad hoc and piecemeal activities of individual emperors, these were more likely concerned with internal imperial politics than with any actual ‘Grand Strategy’ confronting ‘the barbarian threat’. In practical military terms, although barbarians could cause widespread damage and demoralisation during their raids, and this should not be understated, the military balance of power lay overwhelmingly in the Romans’ favour. With a total military manpower in excess, it is estimated, of 400,000 men, the Empire had, by antique standards, bottomless reserves of troops to draw upon. Even on the Rhine, the number of troops available far outweighed anything that even a large barbarian confederacy could assemble. Roman sources habitually discuss the size of barbarian armies in the tens of thousands – occasionally hundreds of thousands. It is astonishing how many professional historians continue to accept these estimates. The largest nucleated settlements known in barbaricum east of the Rhine housed about two hundred people. There were no urban sites. In much of the trans-Rhenan zone, for most of the Roman Iron Age, agricultural surplus and its control were insufficient to support wealthy, established élites or much craft specialisation and organised industry. That, in this context, small or even middling groups could have mobilised armies of twenty- to thirty-thousand men and move them even as far as the frontier without causing catastrophic famine in their homelands, or maintain them without starving once within Roman territory, defies belief. Julian was able to starve out a force of only 600 Franks. While the Late Roman Empire had 400,000 men or more under arms, its largest field armies seem only to have numbered about 20,000 troops; expeditionary forces of a couple of thousand were frequently deemed adequate to deal even with serious regional trouble. Well-organised, taxing states with more complex economies, banking loans, urban settlements and more developed agricultures did not habitually raise armies of 30,000 men or more before the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The confederate Alamannic army that fought the Roman army at Strasbourg in 357 cannot possibly, therefore, have approached the 35,000 men claimed by Ammianus Marcellinus. If it matched the 13,000 on the Roman side, that will have been remarkable. Add to that the undoubted superiority that the Romans held in the fields of armament, fortifications, siege techniques and logistics and one arrives at a better idea of how serious the military threat posed by the Germanic-speaking barbarians really was.

The proof of this argument lies in the relative importance attached by Roman commanders to Roman and barbarian enemies. Invariably they left invasions by trans-Rhenan barbarians to be cleared up afterwards, no matter how damaging they were (as with the Alamannic attacks during the civil wars of the 350s). Primacy had to be given to the subjection of the larger, better-equipped forces of Roman enemies and this remained true through the fifth century. Indeed the Rhine frontier could be effectively denuded of defending units, as perhaps in the 390s and the first decade of the fifth century. Claudian’s panegyric for Stilicho admits that he left it defended mainly by the fear of his name and by treaties with barbarian frontier kings. Only the prevalence of the modern ‘straining dam’ theory of Roman history makes this fact seem surprising. For most of the past two centuries, France and Germany, or Canada and the USA, have not permanently had to line up huge field armies along their shared borders in a form of ‘dynamic tension’, lest their removal led to automatic invasion by the other side. There was, likewise, nothing natural or automatic about the hostile movement of Germanic-speaking barbarians across the imperial borders.

So, why did the Romans focus so heavily upon the frontier and the barbarian threat? One of the most important historiographical developments of recent decades has been the increase in awareness of the ideological role of the frontier and the barbarian ‘bogey man’. The barbarian threat – especially the ‘Germanic’ barbarian threat – was largely, in John Drinkwater’s words, a Roman artefact. The third century’s political instability had made it clear that the unusual cultural and economic features that had held the Empire together were no longer effective. Political fission and multiple Empires had briefly seemed realistic possibilities. The revived late third- and fourth-century Empire based itself upon a large bureaucracy. This 20-30,000-strong civil service operated as a huge interlocking pyramid of patronage networks with the emperor at the pinnacle. The attractions of promotion, in terms of privilege and local precedence, and the short terms for which many offices were held made this system an enormous resource for the emperors. Local ambitions were best served by imperially-moderated competition for the benefits brought by involvement in government and thus the Empire was bound together as a political unit. The principal role of this crucial bureaucracy was to collect taxation; taxation was primarily required to pay the army. In turn the justification for the army was defence from barbarian attack. No emperor could admit that he needed his army to cow his subjects and potential rivals! Central to any emperor’s claims to good rulership – and thus to the legitimacy and attraction of association with him – was a role as the domitor gentium (pacifier of the nations). Victory over barbarians was especially important and expenditure on frontier fortifications a valuable sign of imperial good management. Consequently, throughout the period up to 388, the emperors remained close to their frontiers in the ‘inside-out’ late Empire, close to their élite field armies and also, importantly, easily accessible to the local aristocracies of strategically-important frontier provinces, like Pannonia and Gaul. Patrick Geary famously said that ‘the Germanic world was perhaps the greatest and most enduring creation of Roman political and military genius’; Alexander Callander Murray has responded that the late Roman world was in many ways created around the barbarian threat. In constructing the barbarian world, the Roman Empire defined itself.

Much of the military basis for seeing the Roman and barbarian worlds as mutually-antagonistic entities can thus largely be discounted. Violence and warfare occurred but are unquantifiable. The whole frontier was rarely in turmoil at once; by far the majority of such barbarian raids as occurred were likely small-scale rustlings or robberies necessitating ‘police actions’ in response, rather than large incursions requiring fully-fledged campaigning. The default setting for Roman-Barbarian relations across the Rhine-Danube frontiers was most probably quiet coexistence.

Plentiful evidence supports this notion. Fourth-century human movement is far more commonly revealed, archaeologically, going from the Empire to Germanic-speaking barbaricum. For all the weight of received wisdom, movement in the opposite direction is mostly implicit. Such evidence takes several forms. Most interestingly, items of Roman military uniform are found in the cremation (and, later, inhumation) cemeteries of modern Lower Saxony and the northern Netherlands, testifying to circular ‘career-migration’, attested in the written sources too. Saxons left home, served in the Roman army and returned to their native land. Such was the status acquired by having served Rome that when these men died their families displayed that imperial connection in their funeral. Only differential funerary custom makes Lower Saxony and neighbouring areas stand out on archaeological distribution maps. Had grave-goods been incorporated in the burial rites of the rest of Germania Magna we would doubtless see such objects more evenly scattered across the region. It is well-known that the late Empire recruited heavily amongst the Germanic-speaking barbarians. This underlines yet further the military imbalance between Rome and her neighbours. However small barbarian manpower was, it was reduced further by the Empire’s recruitment of so many young warriors, among whom the attractions of Roman service doubtless far outweighed those of membership of a chieftain’s warband. Such troops served Rome loyally, not least in attacks on their co-linguists: further nailing shut the coffin of the idea of a unified proto-German ‘people’.

Movement is also revealed by the distribution of other types of Roman artefact. Settlements close to the limites are saturated with Roman imports of all sorts, bearing witness to a lively system of exchange. Imperial products are, of course, less frequent the further away from the Rhine one moves, but they reached a long way. A type of bronze bowl manufactured in the Meuse valley is known as the Vestland Type because of the frequency with which it occurs in that region of Norway, for example. Roman imports are found around the Baltic. On Fyn it is clear from their distribution that the regional élite controlled access to prestigious Roman artefacts. The site at Gudme-Lundeborg, through which such imports entered the region, is emblematic of a particular type of small, high-status settlement involved in trading with the Empire. Another example is Dankirke on the west coast of Jutland. The commerce that reached Jutland and Fyn was presumably seaborne but other trade is further, demonstrated through the movement of goods up the ‘amber routes’ between the Baltic and the Empire. The growth and prosperity of some settlements in barbaricum near the frontier, such as Wijster, has been linked to trade with the limes. This might also have lain behind the organised iron-working revealed at Heeten in the Netherlands. The exchanges attested by this evidence can reasonably be interpreted as commercial.

Other Roman-barbarian interactions are attested by the Roman silver and gold objects in prestigious inhumation burials, especially in central Germania. Although these might have originated as loot, it is as plausible to view them as diplomatic payments paid by the Empire to its friends in barbaricum. These relationships are also revealed by huge gold medallions bearing the same imperial iconography as is found on the later Empire’s normal gold coinage, the solidi, and usually of a weight that corresponds to a multiple of the latter. It would seem erroneous to view these as coins rather than as enormous, prestigious units of bullion struck for diplomatic purposes.

The deployment of Roman objects in public ritual, seen in the Saxon cremations and the lavish central German inhumations, underlines very clearly the importance with which links with the Empire were viewed in late third and fourth-century barbaricum. Rome’s late antique cultural dominance is also revealed by the fact that just across the Upper Rhine and Danube frontiers, in the territory of the Alamanni, local leaders made imitations of just the sorts of official brooches that Saxon soldiers took back home with them. We can set this evidence against that of the written sources to suggest that after three hundred years of close proximity to the imperial superpower, society, politics and culture amongst the Germani were so soaked in Roman influence that legitimate power was difficult to express except via imperial idioms. According to Ammianus, an Alamannic ruler even named his son Serapio, without the latter seeming to mind being saddled with the strange moniker. In more general ways it might not even have been that unusual. Until perhaps the last quarter of the fourth century it was normal for Germanic-speaking and other barbarian recruits into the army to adopt Roman names.

Furthermore, the new third- and fourth-century confederacies – Saxons, Franks, Alamans and Goths (like, perhaps, the Picts) – appeared directly on the imperial frontiers. The role of the imperial frontier in these units’ formation has recently been much discussed. The Alamanni might have come together in some way under Roman auspices, during the imperial withdrawal from the Agri Decumates. It was, however, probably more usual for the Empire to play a part in group-formation through the de facto proximity of the limes and via possibly unintended results of imperial ‘foreign policy’. The cross-border trade discussed above probably allowed greater wealth to be concentrated in the hands of local rulers, but Roman diplomacy was doubtless even more important.

The Romans had always played their barbarian neighbours off against each other. During the third-century troubles, diplomatic payments to barbarians across the Rhine probably became larger and more common as rivals for power purchased either quiet borders, while they removed troops to fight elsewhere, or allies to disturb the tranquillity of their rivals’ frontiers. These policies continued through the fourth century and into the fifth. The Romans could intervene directly in barbarian politics close to the limes and this usually enabled them to prevent the barbarian confederacies from coalescing. However, when the Romans were distracted by civil war, the confederate identities that had emerged in the third century permitted larger barbarian units to form. The stakes in barbarian politics had been raised.

It is important not to get carried away with a cosy view of the Roman-barbarian frontier. Murderous and very damaging raids on the Empire occurred. When they were launched, imperial punitive expeditions into barbaricum were probably even more lethal. The barbarian could be, and was, presented as the very antithesis of the civilised Roman, with much in common with wild animals. Roman troops were unleashed across the frontier with orders to kill every living thing they found; captured barbarians could be thrown to wild beasts in public spectacle, or forced to kill each other in the arena. When activated, the Roman ideology of the barbarian put the latter very squarely in a state of exception, of ‘bare life’, in the phrases coined by Giorgio Agamben. That said, although the binary civilised:barbarian opposition could be mapped geographically onto the imperial frontiers, it was considerably more flexible and less well policed. Nor should it be fused with the Romans’ ‘taxonomic’ ethnography of the different peoples of the world, in which the limes played a less defined role. Barbarians, like animals and women, were praised for their closeness to the ideal, central pole of civilisation represented by the Roman male, as well as damned for distance from it. Unlike women and animals, indeed, they could be brought so close to that ideal as to be incorporated in it, with no notable trace of their different origins. Thus the very troops slaughtering men, women and children in Alamannic villages or dragging captives off to the arenas might themselves be Germanic-speaking barbarians – possibly even Alamans. Although always present as a resource to be called upon, the ideological distinction between the civilised Roman and the ferocious barbarian was more often left hovering – however chillingly and menacingly – in the background of cross-border relations.

The Roman Empire and Migration

The preceding discussion has demonstrated the inextricable connection between the ‘Germanic’ barbarian and the Roman worlds, indeed the dependence of the former upon the latter. Rather than two hostile, opposed blocs, we should envisage a single world with a Roman core and northern barbarian periphery. This provides a very different framework into which to fit the documented movements of barbarians into Roman territory. We can look at the dynamics from the perspective of individuals and of larger groups.

Let us take individuals first. In recent decades, what is known as ‘migration theory’ has made an appearance in the studies of late antique population movement. This has largely been pressed into service by traditionalists wanting to maintain the idea of large-scale folk-wanderings, especially into Roman Britain. Its employment has rarely gone beyond demonstrating that migrations occur but in fact this ‘theory’ (in reality a body of general, comparative observations about the nature of migration) has much more to offer. Ironically, though, it tends to tell against the arguments of those who make most use of it, in that it provides little support for reading material cultural change in simple terms of the movement of people from barbaricum into the Roman Empire. Particularly important for our purposes are migration theory’s insights that processes of population movement rarely if ever constitute one-way traffic; that migrants follow established routes rather than ‘flooding’ over the borders on a wide front (something that surely applies a fortiori to antique population movement); that they are drawn to pre-existing immigrant communities; and (underpinning all the previous comments) that the flow of information is crucial to migration. A typology of migration has also been set out, which helps to make the discussion more precise.

What is interesting about this is that it suggests that barbarian immigration was in many respects considerably easier when the Roman Empire was functioning and its borders still effectively maintained. There was a steady stream of information flowing from the Empire to barbaricum (manifest in the archaeological data discussed earlier). For those, like the Saxons mentioned above, who undertook circular ‘career migration’, this was vital. It was essential to know if, and whom, the imperial army was hiring, where to go to be enrolled, and how to get there. For families moving for economic reasons, again, information about the feasibility of settlement, routes and the safety of travel, and existing communities was important; in addition to controlling access, those manning the imperial borders seem to have been able to organise the settlement of those allowed into the Empire. Like the movement of traders in the opposite direction (or those soldiers’ movements back home after their service expired), these migrations required a peaceful and well-ordered frontier. Population movement that was (in terms of the social units involved) small-scale thus flourished under the Empire.

Large-scale population movement was also integral to the imperial world. As early as Julius Caesar’s day, the Romans’ management of their borders and their promotion of allied leaders or groups had led to such migration. Those who lost out in barbarian politics had long sought shelter within the Republic’s or, after it, the Empire’s frontiers, especially if they had at some point been Rome’s friends. Unsurprisingly, they took their families with them, as well as being joined by those of their compatriots who had supported their faction. Large groups were, then, settled within the Empire and it is moot whether such groups were smaller than those that entered in the so-called Migration Period. Forty-thousand Suevi and Sicambri were (allegedly) settled in 8 BC; fifty-thousand ‘Getae’ in AD 5; an inscription records 100,000 barbarians settled in Moesia under Nero; and so on. The same prudence needs to be shown towards these numbers as to those of barbarian armies; what matters is that these were larger social groups than simple families and that the Romans described them in the same sort of terms as they used for the fifth-century movements. As before, the effective management of the frontier was crucial; the groups admitted were moved and their settlement organised and administered by the imperial government. These provided, one assumes, focal communities to which later migrants from the same area were drawn. All told, it is quite likely that significantly more migration took place across the Rhine and Danube before the collapse of the western Empire than afterwards, as long as we keep in mind the nature of such movement.

The greater population movements of the late fourth and fifth centuries in large part followed the same patterns. Although an attempt has recently been made to revive the antique ‘domino theory’ first espoused by Ambrose of Milan, with the Huns pushing the various peoples in front of them, such a view is tendentious at best. A more sophisticated examination suggests that the Gothic crisis 376-82 should be understood in the terms of normal Roman practice. The trans-Danubian region was thoroughly destabilised by Emperor Valens’ campaigns in the 360s. Rather than bursting unexpectedly onto the scene as a deus ex machina, the Huns became another element in an already faction-ridden situation north of the Danube, which took perhaps thirty years to resolve. It is clear that the pro-Roman Tervingian Gothic faction led by Fritigern and Alaviv, like the Greuthungian group that formed around the child-king Videric, lost out in this civil strife and took the well-worn route of moving to the imperial frontier and demanding asylum. It was the mismanagement of the Greuthungian receptio (in no small measure attributable to the emperor’s distance from events) rather than its scale that led to the Gothic revolt and eventual victory at Adrianople (378). In any case, close scrutiny of the more contemporary data, rather than teleological interpretations based upon subsequent events and sources (themselves seeking explanations for later actions) suggests that the Goths were eventually worn down and surrendered, being settled in fairly conventional manner. Similarly, a solid case can be made that the Gothic invasion of Italy under Radagaisus and the so-called Great Invasion of c.406 followed a fairly typical pattern. The final emergence of the groups based around the Huns as the dominant faction north of the Danube led to the losers in such politics, like the Tervingians before them, seeking refuge within the Roman frontiers. The collapse of Roman frontier management in the decades either side of 400 also played a part, removing the usual checks and balance that maintained a rough balance of power. As had happened before, the end of effective, active Roman ‘foreign policy’ produced crisis and tension in the barbarian world and the emergence of a larger and more dangerous unit there.

It is interesting, in this connection, that the barbarian groups who moved furthest in the fifth and sixth centuries came not from the large border confederacies but from a sort of ‘middle band’ of territories in the interior of Germania Magna: Vandals, Sueves, Burgundians, Lombards. It was in this zone that Rome’s role in maintaining political stability might have been greatest and thus where the end of effective frontier management might have been most keenly felt.

The crucial role of the Roman frontier and its dynamics in governing migration to and from Germania is underlined by the fact that significant movements by large groups into the former imperial territories more or less end with the political and military disintegration of the frontier during the first half of the fifth century. Thereafter (and indeed during the disintegration), such movement as occurred across the Rhine was short-range ‘drift’ by Franks and Alamans, largely small-scale in nature, if cumulatively significant. The Saxon movement across the North Sea was probably similar in nature. This probably ought not to surprise us. With the collapse of the Empire the distances over which information travelled probably reduced considerably, shortening the range of human movement commensurately. The economic collapse attendant upon the fifth-century imperial crisis only underlined this by shortening the distances over which exchanges took place. A final support for the thesis proposed here, relating migration to the core-periphery relations between the Empire and its neighbours, might be found in the way that the last of the classic ‘Germanic’ Völkerwanderungen, that of the Lombards, also moved from trans-Danubian barbaricum into (at that point) imperial territory.

The ways in which Roman and barbarian worlds were intertwined is made very clear by the ways in which the crisis of the Roman Empire around 400 produced crisis in barbaricum. The migrations of Goths, of Vandals, Alans and Sueves, of Burgundians and, later, Lombards have been mentioned. Saxon migration was related to the political, social and economic instability produced by the crises in the north-western provinces around 400. As in Britain and northern Gaul, archaeology there reveals similar symptoms of such crisis: settlements and cemeteries were abandoned, new inhumation rites involving more significant grave-goods deposition appear. There are indications that the Saxon confederacy fractured. In these regards Saxon migration has some points of contact with those of the Vandals and others. The divergent trajectories of fifth-century development in different areas of barbaricum can be related to the varying relationships between those areas and the Empire before 400.

Another point worth stressing is that, as before, movement across the former frontier was two-way. The similarity between the archaeologies of fifth-century eastern Britain (indeed as far north as Scotland), northern Gaul and North Sea Coastal Germany can only be explained by postulating human movement across and around the North Sea in all directions and the creation of a North Sea cultural zone. Written sources also testify to movement back into barbaricum in the fifth and sixth centuries. If anything, movement from the formerly imperial provinces into what had been barbaricum might have become proportionately even more important in the post-imperial centuries. Politically, this was certainly the case, as the late fifth and sixth centuries saw the establishment of a Frankish hegemony east of the Rhine, which ultimately became the eastern portions of the Carolingian Empire.


In 2007 I wrote that we should reverse the usual formula: ‘The ‘barbarian migrations’ were … the product of the ‘end of the Roman Empire’, and not vice versa.’ I would now correct this conclusion. The imperial crisis around 400 can be said to have produced the last great ‘folk movements’ of the old style, but closer examination suggests that it would be truer to say that ‘the Fall of Rome’ put an end to ‘the barbarian migrations’. The analysis that produces such a conclusion should enable students of the processes of the so-called Völkerwanderung to contribute in a more responsible fashion to modern debate. The counter-intuitive aspect of this study is that it posits a relationship between the existence of a formal frontier and large-scale migration that is the opposite of the one we are accustomed to envisage. For centuries, population movements of varying sizes and characters were a normal part of the dynamic of the Roman frontier. When that frontier collapsed, the mechanisms for such movement went with it. A perhaps more important contemporary resonance is that we have to view these types of migration within a broad system of intimate core-periphery Roman-barbarian relationships, rather than seeing population movement as a product of two hostile, opposed entities. This, it seems to me, is a more responsible and ethical basis upon which to move from the late imperial past to migration in the twenty-first century world system of ‘the west and the rest’.

For the purposes of German history, this rethinking is important. If the migrations played a part in the emergence of Germany it was in a quite different way from that which we are used to supposing. The collapse of the Empire changed the nature and possibilities of population movement and their relationship to politics within the trans-Rhenan regions. As a result, new political dynamics – which we might provisionally describe as more inward-looking – came into being in these areas. These would create a more integrated zone of political interaction, quite different from the Germania Magna of the Roman era. It was that which later became Germany.