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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Changing Minds around 600

[I was very kindly invited to give one of the once-a-term York Medieval Lectures yesterday (in-house speakers are not often invited), which was an honour of course.  I reprint the text as given, minus introductory burble.  It is all very provisional and doubtless all much more complex.  Indeed maybe just plain wrong, but at the moment these seem to me to be interesting lines of enquiry.

The argument goes like this.  Many things were changing around 600, of which I give a sample.  The problem is how to explain this wide range of changes across many geographical areas, social, political, military and cultural aspects, etc.  Pirenne blamed the Arabs of course, but that obviously won't work.  In the past I looked at short-term, important political events, then moved on to see things more in terms of a conflict for resources between kings and aristocrats.  Now I am exploring the idea that a combination of features, contingent political historical events, the knowledge of living 'after Rome', an ideological crisis as a result of the latter, inside and outside the old Empire, and theological worries about the end of the world (dependent upon the long-standing belief that the Roman Empire and the Sixth Age were commensurate) came together to produce a very distinctive world view, one that soon passed but left far-reaching changes in its wake.  Well, see what you think.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been working on a project entitled ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. 
I’ve been exploring the notion of the ‘end of the late antique state’ around 600.   This may or may not be descriptively adequate but it involves discussing the end of a Roman world view, and the need to create new ways of thinking about power, gender-relations and so on and so forth after the end of the Roman Empire.  That was what the ‘changing minds’ element of the title referred to.  But it’s that area – that mental shift – which, over the last two or three months, has really taken over my thinking about the period. It also relates to a lot of other reading I’ve been doing over the past two years about the meaning and importance of history itself.  So, what I present tonight is a long way from being a coherent, fully-worked-out thesis; it is a snapshot, as of February 2012, of where my own mind is at, in thinking about the period between roughly the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh.  In descriptive terms – and in many explanatory ideas too – I have little new to say.  What I have to offer is rather an attempt to bring together various disparate elements – written and excavated data, social and political history, both of those and religious and intellectual history – and to try to confront some important issues, such as how change happens, especially what, with Foucault, we might call epistemic change.

Now, there are four caveats that I need you to bear in mind throughout what I am about to say, as I don’t have the time to reiterate them with every point I make. 
1: The first concerns the diversity of experiences and strands of the story.  If you are trying to give a whistle-stop overview of a period of between, say, eighty and 100 years in less than an hour, you have to generalise.  The period I discuss saw many different histories, whether looking at geographical regions, social groups or historical themes.  They don’t all run at the same speed and with the same chronological shifts.  Some may indeed run counter to what one might see as a main trend.  Classical and medieval thinkers liked to use music as a metaphor for unity in diversity. If you like, this paper represents me whistling something which might be recognisable, overall, as the melody of a particular piece of music but which corresponds in detail to none of the parts played by individual instruments or voices.
2: The second, related, caveat is that I am not discussing a dramatic, revolutionary change, a seismic shift from one thing to another.  I’m not suggesting that on 1 January 601 a bell tolled and everyone changed their ways of doing everything.  There were of course continuities for the ‘old’ ways and precursors, models and forerunners of the new.  What I am taking about is a change of emphasis or of pace.  It’s significant – indeed vitally important – but we need to be clear about how I understand such a change.
3: I don’t for example (and this is my third, again related, caveat), see it all as all happening suddenly, at once or all at the same time.  I might argue that the decades either side of 600 were a ‘Schwerpunkt’ but the period of change spans two or three generations. 
4: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this is not the period of change.  I stole my project’s title, shamelessly, from that of my namesake, Guy Bois’ controversial book The Transformations of the Year 1000.  Unlike Bois, however, I am not postulating that this X marked the spot where the ancient world became the medieval world.  The period c.600 is often described as the start of the medieval world.  Indeed one short-lived journal of the 1990s, Medieval History, set its opening date, very precisely, as 594.  What happened in 594?  As I’m sure you know, Gregory of Tours died.  He bore a huge weight on his shoulders; he took to his bed, breathed his last, and the classical world ended.   But, the start of the medieval world?  What does that mean?  I don’t know; it’s one reason I don’t think of myself as a medievalist.  If it means that the world c.650 is more recognisable to people who study the twelfth or thirteenth centuries than the world c.550 then I’d have to agree, but then the world c.750 would be even more recognisable and the world c.450 even less so.  It might well be that many of what one might, were one so inclined, think of as defining features of the medieval world were significantly shifted around 600 but the danger with that sort of thinking is that, like Bois’, it assumes two periods of greater or lesser structural stability on either side of a point of transformation or transition.  The world as it was in western Europe in c.550 was a pretty recent creation and the world that emerged after my period of change did not remain unaltered for long.  A lot happened around 700. 
You must bear all four of these general points in mind, throughout what I am going to say, as qualifying an oversimplifying overview.

2: Description of Period

The Column of Phocas, Rome
Nothing says 'the end of the classical world'
like the Column of Phocas
So, you might be asking yourself, what is so interesting about the period around 600?  Well, I’ll tell you…  This will of necessity be a rather breathless and selective round-up.  I will return to the elements that concern me; others can perhaps be dealt with in discussion.  One topic that most interests me is time and how people thought about it, so this listing has something of a focus on that area.  As ever Gaul/Francia is the area about which I know most and it will retain its centrality within my discussion.  I’m not assuming that what happens in Francia must necessarily happen everywhere else; in some cases clearly it doesn’t; in others there are distinct variations on the theme.  It nevertheless gives a reasonable approximation of the general directions in which things were moving across the West.  One thing that has long been said, and it still seems to be true, is that it was this period that saw a decisive shift of focus towards the north of France and the North Sea cultural zone province from the Mediterranean.  This might be of more general cultural significance than I hitherto supposed.
The material that first drew me to the importance of the changes around 600 was the funerary archaeology of north-eastern Gaul.  I have talked about this JustSo – Very often, not least here, that I will – you’ll be pleased to hear, be very brief but it is important and must be mentioned.   The principal issues are these.  First of all, one of the major shifts in the form and design of artefacts took place sometime between c.575 and c.600.  This involved, not least, a radical shift in the balance of investment in material and decoration from feminine to masculine artefacts.  At the same time, the focus of funerary ritual moved from the comparatively transient (if quite multi-dimensional) display of the grave-goods ritual, to a greater degree of investment in more permanent – if more one-dimensional – commemoration in above ground monuments, and perhaps in other, written or liturgical  forms of memoria.  Monuments include the construction of barrows on the fringes of the Frankish realms, churches (in northern Gaul moving gradually out from the cities, via the smaller administrative nodes, to the countryside), grave-stones, sarcophagus-lids visible at surface level, walls around burials, and so on.  Commensurate with this is a significant growth in the number of cemeteries, usually smaller than their sixth-century precursors. 
Now, it is possible to see similar shifts in other regions of the West, both inside and outside the former frontiers of the Roman Empire.  The rash of lavish barrow burials in Anglo-Saxon England, most famously Sutton Hoo, of course, most recently Prittlewell, is well-known.  Not just the investment in the display is noteworthy, but also the process of separation – both of which find their parallels in Francia, particularly on its fringes.  Many of the changes involved in the move towards what used to be called ‘Final Phase Cemeteries’ – or ‘Conversion Period’ cemeteries (I don’t think the description is very much more helpful) – are recognisably similar, though rather different in detail.  The increased concern with above-ground commemoration extends to the reuse of prehistoric barrows and other monuments – something which has some parallels in Francia, especially in the east, though elsewhere it might be that the standing remains of Roman villae were more important.  North of the old Roman frontier in parts of the Pictish kingdom it is the case that above-ground monuments were becoming more popular at this time, too, with the use of symbol stones, cairns and various types of barrow. 
The usual political interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon burials is as a sign of the emergence of kingship.  The Pictish developments are usually placed in a sequence allegedly charting the growth of the Pictish ‘state’.  I will present some reasons to rethink this interpretation later on.  The standard interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon trend towards the reuse of barrows and other ‘ancient monuments’ is that seventh-century people were attempting to associate themselves with the ancestors, in other words with the past.  I find this reading entirely unconvincing, for reasons I have set out at length, especially with regard to John Moreland’s reading of the Wigber Low barrow in Derbyshire.  There seems to me to be no evidence to support it and, in broader context, especially looked at across Europe, it is far more likely that this represents an over-writing of the past and a concern with the future.
Whilst were on the subject of the future, here are two clauses of Frankish law concerning what you have to do if you can’t pay a legal fine.  The first is clause 57, De Chrenecruda, of the early sixth-century Pactus Legis Salicae – a favourite of any student who has to read the text.  The guilty man goes before the mallus – the court – and declares publicly, with twelve oath-helpers, that he has no property left, above or below the ground.  Whereupon he must take handfuls of earth from the four corners of his house and throw them over his shoulder onto those of his closest relatives, on his father’s and mother’s sides, who must help him pay.  He does this to all those who are related to him within three generations.  Something over a hundred years later, the equivalent clause, 12.2, of Lex Ribvaria, probably issued in the 620s or 630s, though this is uncertain, simply reads that if a man cannot pay the fine, his sons can pay over three generations.  What we have here, whilst the concern with three generations remains constant, is a shift from a public, ritual display bringing in living relatives, towards a spreading of the responsibility into the future.
This is not the only concern with the future in Ripuarian Law, which contains, to my knowledge, the first reference to the procedure whereby, if a written document is not drawn up, young boys are brought to a legal transaction and boxed around the ears to make them remember it.  The reference to documents is important.  Ripuarian Law, and in this it is entirely different from Salic Law, repeatedly says that customary law, partible inheritance and similar matters can be modified if a document exists.  And indeed it is from around 600 that documents start to survive in Francia.  Various chance explanations for this have been proposed but none is very satisfactory.  In the tenth century, the oldest charters Flodoard of Rheims could find in the cathedral archive were from the period between 580 and 600, apart from a couple of bishops’ wills, notably that of Saint Remigius, presumably kept as a relic.  The oldest original charters belong to Chlothar II’s reign (584-629), there’s a possible interpolated charter from the reign of Chlothar’s cousin Theudebert II (596-612) and the oldest genuine copies come from the earlier seventh century.  The numbers of authentic charters really take off from about the 640s and into the second half of the century, though.  The most forged Merovingian king is not, as you might expect, Clovis, founder of the dynasty; Theo Kölzer could only find six forged charters of Clovis.  It is Dagobert I (621-639), for whom Kölzer tracked down no fewer than forty.  Forgers, it seems, picked a reign from which it was plausible that a charter might have survived.  Clearly, no one had ever seen a charter of Clovis, evidently making attempts to claim him as a donor almost as suspect to early medieval readers as they are to modern ones. 
Forged Merovingian Charters, by Reign, Childeric I
to Dagobert I

It is interesting too that for the century or more between Childeric I and Childebert II’s accession in 575 Kölzer found seventy-four deperdita – charters referred to by, or inferred from, other sources but now lost.  He catalogued no fewer than 133 for the sixty-four years between 575 and 639; mostly from Dagobert’s reign.  Now, that evident three- or fourfold increase in the relative frequency of documents must be relativized by the growing survival of written evidence from around 600: a vitally important change in itself.  Doing so reminds us that the sixth-century Merovingian kingdom was highly literate, generating all sorts of documents – almost none of which survives.  Indeed, there are almost as few surviving documents from Gaul north of the Loire before 600 as there are for the British Isles.  Apart from warning us against assuming that a documentary blank indicates illiteracy or illiterate government, this shows that the increased document survival after 600 is not an issue of the introduction of writing as much as the decision to retain documents (an issue not even addressed in John Moreland’s book).  Why that might be the case is an issue to which I will return.  It sheds a different light on the production of northern formularies from the seventh century, for one thing.
Associated with the survival of these documents is the development of aristocratic estates.  Northern Gallic Merovingian aristocrats might have had more secure control, more eminent ownership of, lands and a greater ability to dispose of them as they pleased – far more wills survive from the seventh century than the sixth; Salic Law did not even recognise the possibility of testamentary disposition and a story in Gregory of Tours suggests that some kings did what they could to back this up.  This might also have been because sixth-century royal grants were grants of government and of revenue, rather than of ownership of the land.  Higher-status settlement sites become archaeologically visible in the seventh century.  Associated with this is the growth of immunities, preventing royal officers from entering specified estates.  That itself suggests two crucial developments.  It illuminates the well-known decline of taxation around 600 but the prohibition on royal officers entering estates to collect fines for non-performance of military service suggests, with other evidence, an important change in the raising of armies.  In my book on the subject, I argued that sixth-century armies still functioned effectively as royal coercive forces, raised from administrative units, commanded by royally-appointed officers.  Seventh-century forces appear to be ever more focused upon aristocratic retinues.  There are other military changes at this time that I don’t have time to discuss.  The rites to extract local surplus and military service seem by the middle of the seventh century to have devolved to local aristocrats.  This may have been the case in Spain as well as in Francia, although the Spanish case seems to me to be more complex and to require more thought. 
The key shift that unifies most of the preceding points is a growth in aristocratic power.  Thus one can detect changes in the description of aristocrats.  Magnate dynasties begin to be securely traceable in northern Gaul.  One reason for this is their promotion of rural monasticism, in Gaul often associated with the Irish monk Columbanus but which, as Ian Wood has shown, rapidly became Frankish to all intents and purposes.  The foundation of these monasteries was a focus for the donation of lands, a means of securing aristocratic control over lands and so on. 
The growth in aristocratic power is certainly to be associated with the economic revival of the North Sea zone from around 600.  The trading sites or emporia become more visible than hitherto, and northern Gallic towns experience an upturn after two centuries of stagnation.  An increase in craft-specialisation is detectable in the metalwork and ceramic evidence, and smaller-denomination coinage reappears.  This is doubtless related, too, to the well-known shift in trading patterns at about this time, from the so-called Mediterranean system that predominated in the fifth and sixth centuries to the ‘Continental System’ of the seventh.
Finally, there are major cultural shifts too.  The use of the Bible, and especially of the Old Testament, in political writings increases at about this time.  About twenty years ago William Daly wrote an important piece about the difference between Gregory of Tours’ Clovis and the Clovis who appears in contemporary sources, showing that the Clovis of his own day was a much more Roman and Christian figure than Gregory’s.  Daly didn’t make the point, though, that Gregory’s Clovis is very much a Clovis for the late sixth century: an Old Testament king who walks righteously in the sight of the Lord and smites His enemies.  Robert Markus brilliantly discussed the importance of typological thinking to Gregory the Great, and how, when compared with earlier thinkers (most notably Augustine) Gregory is able much more easily to pass through the sign – the word – to the signified beyond.  This sort of development, I think, is more widespread than perhaps Markus thought. 
Jacques Fontaine argued that the seventh century saw an acceleration in the importance of rhythmic verse but especially of a type of poetry that was composed in autonomous strophes making more use of parallel phrasing and synonyms.  This can be set alongside Gregory the Great’s thought and Gregory of Tours’ historical writing.  Another shift that has been remarked upon is in the greater use of miracles in religious writing.  It has been argued that Caesarius of Arles makes almost no use of the miraculous in his Sermons, but that his vita, composed in the 540s contains many miracles and by the time one arrives at the Gregories, especially the Bishop of Tours, the miraculous can be argued, as by Ray Van Dam, to dominate explanation, to the exclusion of theological debate.  Finally the period I am concerned with is, more or less, that of the floruit of Salin’s Style II, which shows a number of key differences from its late fifth- and early sixth-century predecessor, funnily enough known as Style I.
The world's most famous Style II Object
It’s possible to sketch all of these developments too starkly, as I have doubtless done, and there are, as stated, many regional variations, but the selection given at least sets out the background to what I want to talk about in the main section of the lecture.  One thing I would like to stress, to any Anglo-Saxonists in the audience, is just how well the Anglo-Saxon picture fits alongside that which I have just sketched, which I hope will make you reconsider the way in which explanation is still widely hung upon conversion to Christianity – at least ponder whether conversion was a cause or a symptom of change.

3: Explanations

All of which brings us neatly to the issue of explanation.  The most famous explanation is, I suppose, Henri Pirenne’s from the early twentieth century, blaming seventh-century changes on the Arab conquests.  This might still be popular as an explanation in some quarters, for obvious reasons.  But the Arab conquests come too late to explain the western Mediterranean changes and again you have to ponder the extent to which they were themselves cause or symptom of the changes taking place at this time.  Pirenne, famously, thought that the rupture of the Mediterranean from the north-west caused Europe’s centre of gravity to shift towards, well, his native Belgium, really.  That economic dislocation, though, can be traced as early as the fourth century and the Mediterranean economic crisis comes too early to have had much to do with the Arabs – although it might have had crucial knock-on effects in the British Isles and it does have a role in explaining some of the variations in trajectory between northern and southern Europe.
Twenty years ago, I pinned the Gallic changes on the royal minorities that occurred between 575 and 613, decisively altering the balance of power between the royal court and the aristocracy, towards the latter.  I still think that that’s very important in explaining the end of the Late Antique state in Gaul.  But to what extent does, or can, it explain developments elsewhere?  It probably did have effects in southern England but there’s only so far that one can push such an explanation.  It’s true that there were political upheavals in Spain around 600, too, that could have had similar effects, but one must also note that (according to Shetelig in the 1930s!) there were changes at about this time on Norwegian cemeteries that look very like those that took place in Gaul.  Frankish and Gothic political instability surely didn’t have effects that rippled out that far!
One also has to ask why dynastic crises in Spain and Gaul should have had the same sorts of effects (if they did!).  So I moved on to consider the end of the late antique state.  Many western European polities in the sixth century fit a reasonable, uncontroversial definition of a state, whereas they don’t (as I see it) in the seventh.  My explanations for that focussed on a rivalry for control of comparatively finite material resources, both at a local community-level and at a higher political level, between kings and aristocrats.  That nevertheless questions why crisis should automatically lead to a hoarding of power by the aristocrats.  It raises the problem, as Chris Wickham put it in 1984, using evidently Gramscian terminology, of ‘how the state lost consent’.  The materialist explanation only goes so far here.
So we need to enter the world of ideas.  Markus discussed the period 400-600 as one of ‘desecularisation’.  There was an ‘ascetic invasion’, a shift towards more monastic ways of thinking about the world, which left little room for the secular.  Markus was a very fine historian and obviously there is a great deal in his argument.  Yet, it too falls short.  Like all of us, Markus had his blind spots.  One was a curious lack of interest in the contemporaries of Gregory the Great, who, for Markus, simply stands at the end of a line that starts with Augustine and passes through Cassian and Cassiodorus.  Markus says little about the other Gregory – of Tours – or Isidore of Seville, let alone other types of text.  It’s difficult, moreover, to avoid the impression that Markus saw Gregory as illustrative of a something of a sorry decline when held up to Augustine.  Again, as far as I can judge, there’s something in that but I think that we need to interrogate this more clearly.  Markus saw the epistemological shift around 600 in terms of decline.  His reading is rationalist, as from a sort of analytical philosophical viewpoint but while instinctively I agree with his judgement I think there must be a more positive or creative way of reading the shift.
Markus’ idea of an epistemological crisis is one in which the old ideas cannot provide answers to new questions, forcing a radical shift in ways of thought.  But, says Markus, like a true classicist, the old ways could solve all of these problems.  How could classical civilisation not?  The idea that that sort of thinking might be found wanting is clearly unimaginable!  This is what I want to explore in what remains of this paper.
In 1988, after a paper by Jocelyn Hillgarth about eschatology and political thinking around 600, Karl Ferdinand Werner said (in my translation),
“I just want to say that I am wary of whether an ‘atmosphere’, or certain intellectual ideas can be a driving force.  Does a particular thought dominate men and their behaviour?  I’d like to express some scepticism about taking that too far.” 
It is a fair question.  How far was the rarefied air of a Pope Gregory breathed by kings, or the men hauling Sutton Hoo Man’s ship up a hill in Suffolk, let along those carving Pictish symbols in areas that the Roman Empire had never governed?  This is what I want to explore, using a potpourri of ideas from a range of thinkers, used in my own Humpty-Dumpty-ish sort of way.  They will cluster around the reciprocal relationship between the subject – the social or historical actor – and the symbolic order.

4: Attempt to try and bring all this together

The Immediately Post-Justinianic West

In Barbarian Migrations I dealt with the issue of narrative and the tyranny of a particular narrative of fifth century history – a theme I develop in my new book, Worlds of Arthur.  I tried to write a history in the ironic mode, a history, in other words, determined by unintended consequences of actions aimed at doing something else entirely.  My view of history is as something entirely chaotic.  The period from 550 to 650 presents a very different, if related, set of issues.  For one thing there is no overarching narrative of any sort, once the Roman Empire dissolves.  That is one reason why the importance of the decades around 600 has not really been realised, unlike in the East, where an imperial master-narrative still pertains. 

The Point de Capiton

It seems to me to be crucial to understanding this period to acknowledge that, after Justinian, his ideological output and especially after his wars and their failure to reconquer territories that he now proclaimed had been lost to barbarians, it was impossible to go on believing that Roman Empire still existed in the West, just as before.  By the end of the period that concerns me it was impossible to believe that in the East either, and many of the responses were analogous.  This has important implications.  For one thing and this is a weakness in Markus’ thinking, it cut away the key anchors of the old signifying system.  One is born into a world of language, of signification, which is why Lacan and Derrida were correct to reverse Saussure’s formula and insist on the priority of the signifier over the signified.  But the removal of, in Lacanian terms, the points de capiton of the classical signifying chain meant a fluidity of meanings.  If one were to combine that with Derrida’s not dissimilar view of language, then it seems to me that this would precisely render the old ways of thinking unsatisfactory in a new context, in the way that Markus failed to acknowledge. 
Help, however, was at hand.  One of the crucial changes of the fifth century – perhaps the crucial change of that century, more so than the old narrative of barbarian invasion, which makes it ironic that I didn’t really spot it in my book – is a shift in the way of seeing the world.  In the classical Roman vision, the centre, the core, of political legitimacy was defined by the ideals of the civic Roman male.  Closeness to that core, or distance from it – along analogous axes of barbarism, femininity or animalism – defined relative political legitimacy.  That nearness or distance was of course ultimately determined by those who controlled the imperial court.  For various reasons, that centre fractured in the fifth century and the world came to be structured in terms of religious orthodoxy, and distance from that, towards various heresies for example, was what defined illegitimacy.  You can track that shift at all sorts of levels of fifth-century politics and across a wide spectrum of cultural forms.  One advantage was that the centre, here, was less fixed but it is clear that this was still played out within an essentially Roman framework.  Many Christian values at this time mapped directly onto those of the civic Roman.  Compare the preambles of Valentinian III’s Novels with the laws of his great-grandfather and namesake Valentinian I and see how things have changed.  Even into the sixth century in the West, religious orthodoxy was still a matter linked with the Emperor.  In the East of course it continued to be but in the West what the Emperor thought largely became a matter of indifference after the Three Chapters Schism.  That increased concern with Christianity provides both the cause and the cure of the post-Roman anxieties of the period around 600.
The problem about being Christian in a post-Justinianic world was this.  At least for two and a half centuries, since Eusebius had synchronized biblical history with classical, the sixth age of the world had been seen as commensurate with the Roman Empire.  Christ, after all, had been born during the reign of the first Emperor.  Gregory of Tours added that Saint Martin, his hero, had been born during the reign of the first Christian Emperor.  So, what now?  Now that the Empire had so clearly ceased to exist?  This, I propose, is the key to understanding all sorts of aspects of this period.  Many of those alive in the decades around 600 – which they knew was 600 years after Christ – thought they were living after the end of history, after linear time.  Hence the new and apparently qualitatively different apocalypticism that one finds so strongly so strongly marked in Gregory the Great’s writings.  Less widely appreciated is the fact that similar concerns appear in the works of his direct contemporary and namesake, the Bishop of Tours.  Gregory seems to perceive the approaching end, almost malgré lui in Giselle de Nie’s reading.  In de Nie’s view, Gregory began with the idea of reassuring his readers that the end of the world was not nigh but by the time he finished the Histories the evidence of his eyes seemed to tell a different story.  Signs and wonders were on the increase and with them false prophets.  There is a lot in this.  The only problem is that the Preface to Book V of the Histories contains an unmistakable apocalyptic allusion.  Die Nie thus has to argue that V.Praef. was composed late and inserted into an earlier composition.  I’m not convinced by this and have argued that it is actually – at the opposite extreme – the first part of the Histories that Gregory composed.
So, what do you do in a world after time?  In a world devoid of its centuries-old fixed points?  The solution seems to have been to turn to another source of fixed points and underpinnings, the Bible.  Given the synchronism of Christianity and the Empire and the unpicking of the quilting points of the Roman signifying system, then it is not surprising that the Old Testament should have become more of a constant touchstone than before.
This new set of reference points works in a number of directions.  For one thing it allows western kings to find new forms of legitimation.  This is the moment when kings become new Davids and Solomons rather than new Constantines or Trajans.  Religious underpinnings of kingship come to the fore and in a new way.  Earlier, I contrasted the legal pronouncements of Valentinian I and Valentinian III.  If we skip forward another 100 years to the Edict of King Guntramn of Burgundy, issued before the Council of Chalon in 585 we see something qualitatively different again.  This, it seems to me, is the appearance of kingship as divine ministry.  Kingship is a God-given position you don’t find that under the Empire) and the king is responsible for the spiritual well-being of his people.  What I find interesting is that this royal document predates Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule by eight years or so.  This suggests to me that Gregory’s thinking, where there’s really nothing to allow a distinction between spiritual and secular pastors, may be rather more typical of his age than has been appreciated.  It suggests to me that the idea of the pastor as answerable for the souls of his flock – for which there were plentiful Old Testament reference points -  was keyed into the apocalypticism of the period.  A judgement was coming. 
Nonetheless, that was useful for royal ideology in what I suspect might have been something of a hegemonic crisis.  In the Empire there had been a what one can label, in Gramscian terms, a civil society in which normative codes served to maintain and legitimise the status quo.  With the unpicking of the classical points de capiton in the period up to c.550, all this will have been questioned.  Why should one do what one’s king said?  A religious – what has been called a monastic or ascetic – replacement must have helped to resolve that crisis.
It might also explain some other religious synchronicity.  In 589, Reccared of the Goths called the Third Council of Toledo, where he renounced the Arian creed that his people had followed for more than two centuries.  Within a decade of that, Æthelberht of Kent allowed Augustine’s mission into his lands and shortly afterwards converted to Christianity.  I have long thought that these events are linked in a current of political and religious thought.  The late and post-imperial trend of adopting a religion that differentiated the military élite from the civil, provincial population was coming to an end.  Perhaps this was because the two groups were by now indistinguishable.  By the time that Ripuarian Law was issued, for example, Romani, rather than being a parallel if legally disadvantaged group of the free population, were semi-free, dependant at law upon free Ripuarians – Franks.  Perhaps, too, in the new world, that way of thinking, locked as it was into an imperial framework, was no longer viable. 
In the intellectual climate of the late sixth century, with the idea of royal ministry gaining ground, perhaps universaility was more important.  This might be equally important inside and outside the former Empire and among former pagans as well as former heretics if – as I suspect was the case, the consciousness of living in a post-Roman world caused ideological crises there too.  This point is of course more readily grasped once one abandons the ‘Invasions’ narrative and sees barbaricum and the Empire not as two antagonistically-opposed worlds but as two inextricably linked parts of the same world. 
The other element of this conjuncture of material, social and mental circumstances was indeed those political crises.  I mentioned at the start the question of why these should have produced what I see as the collapse of the state at this time.  A crisis of the old hegemony would create conditions in which a new order of (in Gramscian terms) civil society could be created but in which also the rules of politics were significantly renegotiated.
A regional aristocracy that acquired a security of local pre-eminence and of the control of surplus could have done what it had done under the Christian Empire, got involved in urban building, sponsored and sent its children to civil schools, had its children educated in the old way, forged a class identity, a control of culture and taste and so on.  But the reference points for that were lacking.  The fixed points according to which the old culture was triangulated had gone.  So new aristocratic cultural forms – like royal – were needed.  Therefore it is at this time that aristocratic (and royal) involvement in monasteries really takes off across the West, from Rome itself as far as Britain.  This expression fits the intellectual currents I have described, not least the concern with ministry and the care of souls, and I suspect a concern with the Day of Judgement.  None of this denies the material advantages bestowed upon the élite by these new forms.  It serves to explain or at least thicken our description of the change in forms.
The coexistence of apocalyptic world view and continuing material politics can be well enough understood via the Lacanian formula much cited by Žižek: Je sais bien mais quand-même: I know very well [that the world is ending] but nevertheless [I’ll go on trying to do the best I can for my family via-à-vis everyone else’s].
We can thicken the description further by considering the nature of the changes in thought.  How does one conceive of a world after time?  The increase in the use of typology is key.  The epistemic change can be nicely illustrated by comparing two large-scale, long-term historical projects: Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, written c.417, and Gregory of Tours’ Ten Books of Histories, written 576-592.  The projects of both are similar to the extent that Gregory quotes Orosius in the key Preface to Book V.  Orosius, though, was more up-beat in his message than Gregory, something significant in itself.  However, although Orosius’ message is very much ‘it was ever thus’, his history unfolds in characteristically classical linear fashion.  Gregory’s Histories, by contrast, concentrate on his own time and are entirely discontinuous.  They work typologically.  The Histories begin not with Creation but with the Cain killing Abel, the type of the event that led Gregory to begin his work: Chilperic’s murder of his brother, Sigebert, in late 575.  After the end of linear time, consequences come about vertically, from God to earth according to the nature of human behaviour.  Gregory writes history as though it were hagiography.  Self-contained anecdotes have their own outcomes manifesting divine presence and they are piled high, typologically, repetitively. 
Pictish symbols: metaphors?
I have already mentioned the prevalence of the miraculous in explanation.  It has been shown, most recently in Charlotte Kingston’s PhD thesis, that Gregory the Great’s discussions of the miraculous manifest the same intellectual traits as his theological writings.  Gregory of Tours seems to reject theological debate in favour of miraculous proofs.  It might be the case, though, that the two Gregories can be brought together, alongside other cultural shifts around an increasingly metaphorical way of thinking.  The Isidorean Style of poetry works, I read, in analogous fashion to Gregory’s history/hagiography; it is episodic and works through synonym, paraphrase with no linear connection between verses.  The model, evidently, is the Psalms. The effect seems to me to be to unsettle and, thereby enable a shift to meditation on meaning, on the issues in question.  In that sense I think that Gregory the Great’s ‘freewheeling’ theology and Gregory of Tours’ preference for the ‘sign’ over the text (so to speak) might be more alike than has been appreciated.  It’s possible, idly, to wonder whether Style II on the one hand and the Pictish symbols on the other might themselves be different manifestations of a metaphoric current of thought.
Je sais bien mais quand-même…  We can return to the attractions of all this in a new political world, a new civic society.  Disjuncture, discontinuity, typology and metaphor might be very attractive to new or redefined élites.  The aristocracies on either side of the Channel, maybe north of Hadrian’s Wall and in other areas, even in Italy, were frequently new groups.  This is where typology and metaphor are so valuable.  They imply the ‘always, already’.  Groups with no lineal descent – even if trying to create such – find their justification typologically. 
So we can end by returning to the above-ground monuments.  If there is a link on occasion with the past, I think we ought to conceive of this in other than simply ancestral terms.  I think it is more important to see it as a discontinuous over-writing but above all the concern is with a monument that will last into the future.  The irony is that that concern with the future, which I see in the burial monuments, the retention of documents and their increased use, is that on the eve of the Apocalypse it was essentially a very short-term view!
Apocalypse soon?  Agilbert's Sarcophagus, Jouarre (c.670)
Does anyone know of an earlier depiction of the Day of
That leads me to my concluding thought.  The conjuncture of political, material and intellectual circumstances around 600 created a very specific world-view.  Within half a century the moment passed.  The world didn’t end.  Of course Apocalypticism persisted, but Bede, born not long after the end of my period, returned to the Augustinian idea that the Day of Judgement was not coming soon.  It is interesting that according to Mark Handley’s studies, after III Toledo, the use of the Spanish Era largely dropped out of use for a few decades.  To me it’s as though they thought they had better stop counting.  By the second quarter of the seventh century they had started again. 
Apocalyptic worries, c.700.  An inscription
from Mellobaudes Memoria, Les Dunes,
In Barbarian Migrations I narrated the end of the Roman Empire in ironic terms. 
The most ironic thing of all, however, is that during the preceding century it is almost impossible to identify a single figure who had actually tried to cause its demise.  All the decisive acts in bringing down the Empire were carried out by people attempting to create a better position for themselves within the sorts of imperial structures that had existed in the fourth century.
Similarly, if the mental, cultural and political world c.650 was more recognisably medieval, if many of the tramlines that defined ‘medieval’ thought, culture and politics were set in place around 600, then this was largely because many people thought the world would end at that sort of time.  That would mean that – if you like to think in these terms – the creation of the medieval world, like the end of the Roman Empire came about by accident.  It was a monument to history’s inevitable irony.


  1. I’ve wondered about this in the past myself. We always want to find an explanation for the ‘changing minds’ as you’ve called it in the 6th and 7th centuries. I think this little piece has effectively explained just how difficult (probably impossible) it is to narrow it down. This got me to wondering about the role that the memory of the Roman Empire played in all of this. The Empire, especially in the 5th century meant different things to different people and at the same time that the rarefied air of the pope, as you have called it, was not being breathed in throughout many parts of Europe, neither was the same image of a former Rome being imagined in the minds of Europe’s inhabitants. So it seems to me that it is not all surprising that people turned to the one constant they had, the Bible, as a means to cope with this new world order and not surprising that they would find solace (or fear) in the tales of the apocalypse. All in all, a fantastic read – thanks

  2. Dear Guy,

    This is a highly captivating and interesting theory, and it puts all of your lectures so far clearly in perspective. I do have one question, when you argued that in the seventh century the polities were not States which definition of a State were you using to conclude that they collapsed?

  3. Thank you. It is a long time since I read Gurevich, so I should go back and have another look, although I am not very sure about the reading as a time of dreamy open-ended peace.


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