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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

There are days...

... when I wonder why the hell I do what I do.  Thanks to this, this is one of them.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Why I don't rate RYL: Addendum

There is one more point I want to make to anyone looking in on this debate.  Ask anyone from across the sector and they will tell you how hard it is to get students actually to fill in feedback forms.  We basically keep ours in the seminar room at the end of the course for the last 15 minutes to fill them in while the lecturer leaves the room.  A student collects them in, puts them in a sealed envelope and hands that in at the departmental office.  Otherwise, when left up to the students themselves, feedback returns are as low as 25%.  So the claims of the student commenters on Bill Cooke's piece indignantly demanding their right to review are as empty as the claims for more contact hours by students who don't turn up, or adequately prepare for, the hours they do have.  

What people like that want - and what RYL will fundamentally only be used to provide - is simply a forum for cowardly, anonymous (but public) score-settling by the puerile and petty-minded.  If that isn't the case why are so many students so unwilling to fill in the review forms they are freely given?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Why I don't approve of Rate Your Lecturer

According to some lame-brains who commented upon this piece by Bill Cooke (with which I largely, though not entirely, agree), if you oppose the new Rate Your Lecturer (RYL) site you must be a really terrible lecturer who doesn't care about your teaching and is afraid of bad feedback.

So let's clear that one up first.

Feedback on pretty much all aspects of my teaching has always ranged from very good to excellent.  I care about my teaching.  I don't always get it right (as we'll see) but I do try to do it well and to keep it as fresh and innovative as I can, within the limits of what I feel comfortable with (trying 'cutting edge' teaching techniques if you're just not comfortable with them ends in miserable failure and general mockery, from what I have seen: e.g. I am not comfortable in role play so I don't use it). Student feedback has played an important (if not the only) role in keeping my teaching up to the mark, not least because we have had student feedback on teaching for a long time.  I'll repeatedly come back to that.

I care about my students (well, almost all of them); indeed I actually like them (mostly).  They make me laugh; it's a blessing to have a job that puts you amongst young, lively, intelligent people.  They also drive me up the wall sometimes, because they are smart but they aren't making enough of their abilities and the opportunities they are given.  I sound off about it in depressive moments; I get into trouble for sounding off about it, I get lambasted in the press, but most of those who saw that story (above all my own students) knew that I was ranting at them because I cared about them.  One or two, I admit, I want to punch in the face (and they loom larger in my impression of the student body than they deserve to).  That aside, I am, they tell me, 'a legend'; when it was fashionable to set up lecturer appreciation societies on Facebook (c.2006) I had the largest and most active by far in my dept - maybe across my university.  For what any of all that's worth.

I used to be competitive about being popular with the students and I won at that game in two different institutions with two very different types of students.  On that front, all bets are off.  But enough own-trumpet-blowing on my part.  If I object to RYL it's not because I am a bad/unpopular lecturer.  Hell, bring it on.  10 years ago I'd probably even have got a chilli or two; 5 years ago I'd probably still have cared.  I just want to make sure we've established that if I don't approve it's not because I am frightened of RYL.  OK?

But I do not approve of RYL.  At all.  Why?  Here's why.

The site makes the bold claim that this is 'the only way' that teaching in the UK will improve.  That is nonsense.  But let me make a positive point first.  The categories of RYL are considerably more thoughtful and useful than those on its older US cousin Rate My Professor (RMP), which include 'Easiness'....  Nonetheless the dreaded hotness chillies are apparently coming soon.  One might legitimately ask what the hell the hotness or otherwise of a lecturer has to do with educational quality or review, or furthering any of the avowedly lofty aims of RYL.

But then those lofty aims are only so much smoke and mirrors.

For one thing, anonymous feedback processes already exist and indeed have done for a long time.  It is ludicrous of Michael Bulman, creator and owner of RYL, to suggest that he is creating something new and valuable.  I have had to deal with anonymous student feedback since the mid-1990s, I think.  Those with free text options are the most useful and I have decried before the move to numerical ratings.  The problem with numerical scores is that though they look precise and scientific they are anything but either of those things.  When we give a student a grade on an essay or exam we have a whole series of grade descriptors against which we have to set the mark.  We have second-markers to check, and externals to oversee the process.  Even then it's not an exact science.  There are, however, no grade descriptors for feedback scores and no checks on the appropriateness with which they are awarded.  That's not to say they are useless; far from it.  Free text, as I said, is more valuable because 'Prof. Grumpy speaks too fast/ is always late/ has Powerpoints with the text too small/ has too many Powerpoint slides/ mumbles/ talks too much in seminars/ talks over the students/ is too negative in his comments', or whatever is more useful than '2/5'.  It is a bit as though we gave essays back with nothing other than the mark on them.  Nonetheless, as an internal check on how well teaching is being done numerical feedback is, while crude, valuable.  The problem comes in turning those scores into overall averages and then league tables.  You aren't comparing like with like.  You aren't comparing the responses of the same set of judges.  What an Oxford student, say, rates as 3 out of 5, a Poppleton student might think of as a 4, or vice versa.  There are different expectations to take into account.  An Oxbridge student might, for instance, mark a lecturer down for being too dirigiste, for not allowing her the space to think and be creative; a student in another institution might mark them highly for directing his thinking so clearly.  As ratings within a department, then, numerical scores are very crude; as the basis of comparison between institutions they are meaningless.

These are just not, as they say, robust data.

Those on RYL are even less robust, because there is no way of checking whether the raters are students who have attended the course - even indeed if they are students at all.  There is no index of what proportion of students on a course think the same way about a lecturer, or the extent to which personal motivations (positive or negative) intrude into the assessment.  Previous reactions have focused on the negative, with good reason, but there are equal and opposites.  A friend of mine (who is, by the way, actually a really good teacher) once had a RMP comment, for example, that read something like "♥ My future husband!"  So much for the intellectual value of whatever comment she wrote about his teaching.  Take a hypothetical example.  Suppose a young male lecturer talks a lot about football and is generally 'blokish' in his humour etc.  He might be rated 9 or 10/10 by some of the male students who like his laddishness, but only 1-2/10 by some of the female students who justifiably feel alienated by it (OK - I've made some problematic, stereotypical comments about gender interests of football but stay with me, fill in some other analogy of your own that might work better at yielding the outcome I suggest).  You might reasonably suppose that those two, rather polarised, subsets would be those most likely to post to RYL, and they unsurprisingly yield an average of 5-6 out of 10.  But suppose that, that one unfortunate trait aside, our man's teaching was actually really good and that, had a full sample responded, his grade would average at 8 out of 10 (or conversely that it was pretty poor and would otherwise have got 4 out of 10).  All these issues make the consumer analogy highly problematic.  The problem is not that a lecturer is not a dancing bear (in Bill Cooke's formulation), but that a lecturer is not a standard mass-produced functional commodity, like a kettle reviewed on Amazon.

This yields yet another point, and one that belies RYL's avowed (but entirely disingenuous) aims.  High or low scores have nothing necessarily to do with educational value.  This develops my point about grade descriptors or their lack.  A low score can mean 'this course was too hard for me to coast on', 'I didn't like this course', 'I didn't want to do this course but I had to and I'm still sulking', 'this lecturer made me work harder than I wanted to', 'this lecturer didn't tell me what I needed to write for the exam', 'I thought he was a bit of an arse' or any number of other things which have nothing at all to do with pedagogical quality.  A high score might mean 'this lecturer is cute', 'this lecturer is funny', 'this lecturer gives high marks', 'this course was really easy', 'this lecturer pretty much told us what was on the exam', 'this lecturer brought us chocolate/bought us all a drink at the end of the course' or any number of other things which equally have nothing to do with educational or pedagogical quality.  Again, students need to beware if they are making choices based on RYL, and in my view they shouldn't make their choices on that basis.   In fact I very much doubt that many will (at least in the quality universities), for the simple reason that most are too smart to do so.  That raises the point of what RYL is really for (on which more later).

In any case, as I have argued before, simple numerical data, league tables and competition do not raise standards.  In my view they can (and frequently do) actually lower standards.  Where these things get taken seriously (as all too often, but let me reiterate that RYL won't be taken seriously), they lead to the production of the sorts of things that generate high scores and thus higher league table positions, not necessarily things of higher actual quality.  Hypothetical analogy.  Supposing the research assessment developed its impact agenda and started to award points for readership/books sold (a concrete, objective datum at least, you might say).  That would certainly lead to Universities pressuring lecturers to write best-sellers - not necessarily (or even likely to be) works of higher intellectual quality.  I've talked before about how KIS data lowers pedagogical standards.  If making courses as easy as possible, on undemanding subjects, telling students what to write, setting easy exams, and giving free cake at each class produced high RYL feedback scores (and believe me it almost certainly would), and that led to universities compelling all teachers to make their courses like that would it raise standards?  No of course it wouldn't.  Because what yields high scores is not necessarily what is good.

As I have discussed before I decided to move away from being a 'dancing bear' (in Bill Cooke's terms) to teaching more self-consciously difficult history that I felt would stretch the students intellectually and represent more of what I thought a history degree would do, and to damn my feedback ratings.  As it happens my students responded  well to that, which is an important point.  But my feedback score did drop.  I'm happy to take a 10% cut in approval to do something more rigorous.  How does RYL acknowledge or respond to that in its disingenuously self-proclaimed crusade for better standards?

There is yet a further point.  Another one that I have made before, I admit.  The consumer analogy is fatally flawed.  Take the kettle example I used above.  Someone who buys a kettle, from Amazon or KettlesRUs.com, or wherever, has (usually) a pretty clear idea of what a kettle is and what they want it to do, frequently on the basis of having used kettles in the past.  Someone who buys a CD (if anyone still does), or whatever the young people do these days, by a particular artiste has an idea of what they like about that artiste's work, or that of others in the genre.  Certainly one hopes they at least know what a CD/download is supposed to do.  On that basis they have a good basis upon which to review the product on-line.  This kettle is rubbish; it gives off a funny smell and took an hour to boil a pint of water is perfectly valid, if true.  This CD is not as good as X's last one, or as Y's current album, is equally valid.  On that basis, a review of a course on the basis that a student didn't enjoy it as much as another course she'd taken is also fair enough - but brings us back to the point about comparing like with like.  But there are strict limits to this.  At the end of the day a lecturer knows better than a student what the important elements of a course are, what the students ought to be taking away from a course and what would be the best way of conveying all that - in the way that a kettle-producer doesn't know better than the kettle-consumer, or even in the way that (to some extent, in some ways) an artiste doesn't know better than his fans.  If you think you know what a, say, history degree should involve, how it should be taught, what subjects it should cover and what weighting different areas should be given, then really you ought not to be taking the degree, but teaching it.  If you expect a degree just to give you what you want then why have a degree?  You want a qualification.  But you want it to be worth something too, right?  To that extent you have to trust the professionals to know better than you.  Once you have a degree (or two) then maybe you're in a position to judge a degree course.  Before then, not.  As I have said before, the point of a degree is to produce someone more capable of judging a degree.  If you were knew enough to judge it at the start, or half way through, it would not be worth doing.  Ultimately it is for the lecturers and the many assurance processes they have to go through to get courses approved to determine the intellectual quality of a degree.  Student feedback has an important role in ensuring the quality of its teaching but numerical scores - as I have been at pains to point out, and have doubtless laboured the point as a result - is a blunt and potentially very misleading tool to use to that end.  And, as I have said, it is most unlikely that any university will take any account of RYL anyway.

And then there is RYL's fatuous claim to be trying to 'redress the balance' between teaching and research.  It is, I have to say, a real shame that so many students evidently think that their lecturers derive more credit for their research than for their teaching, or care so much more about their research.  Some do; that's true.  It is a minority these days, and that is one good outcome of the greater degree of quality audit that the profession has been exposed to over the past 20 years (again making the point that RYL has come too late to make any difference).  To be promoted you have to show that you are doing your job to the required standard in all three areas of the lecturer's job: teaching, research and administration.  You then choose two areas in which you think you have done more than could be expected at your level.  Most lecturers go on teaching and research, a few on teaching and admin (largely because most lecturers enjoy teaching and research more than they enjoy admin) but even those who go on research and admin have to show that they've been doing their job properly as a teacher.  In those cases, if they want to be promoted again, even if they still want to emphasise their roles in research and admin they still have to show that they are teaching effectively.  That, at least, is the case in my university and I don't think that that is atypical.  Ten years ago, once you had your senior lecturership you could indeed ignore everything but research to get promoted but that's really not the case any more.  Teaching feedback is an essential part of the promotion process.  Thus RYL's claim to be rewarding good teaching, and for the first time giving students a voice in that, is, in addition to being flawed and factually erroneous for all the reasons already set out, missing the boat by about ten years.

RYL refers to moving away from valuing lecturers simply for 'churning out research'.  Do you really think that that is all that is involved in university level research?  Churning it out?  Try actually doing some, all ye who can't get a 2,000-word undergraduate procedural essay in on time.  Leaving that aside, though, research is what universities are there to do and it is as important a role as teaching.  Do you really want UK HE to stop producing world-leading research?  Maybe more important than that, though, is the fact that active, high-quality research and good teaching are fundamentally linked.  (As an aside this is especially disheartening when set aside the claims of the purveyors of on-line degrees that students should be lectured to by 'star' media dons rather than ordinary lecturers.)  How can I teach you how to be a good historian if I am not a good historian myself?  How can I teach you about how to research if I don't research?  How can I give you cutting edge insights into historical topics if I am not myself actively involved at that cutting edge?  You can't have this both ways.  You can't demand to be taught by the best and then claim that the best spend too much time 'churning out' research (as if that would be what 'the best' did).  Lecturers only have 24 hours in a day like anyone else, and (believe it or not) have lives outside work (well, most do).  The pressures on that time are increasing all the time, frequently in ways that have little or nothing to do with either good teaching or high-quality research.

As a last point on this issue, the very same government policies that have slashed back funding, forcing Universities to charge fees (and at which you should be directing your ire, not at University teaching staff) have also forced Universities to rely ever more heavily on research funding.  And believe me, that is FAR more lucrative and significant in a departmental budget than fees.  RYL won't make any difference to that.  Most lecturers I know would far rather be teaching than filling in grant applications but in the current financial situation that is what they have to do, for very real reasons relating to the very sustainability of UK universities.  Argument about students being the sole consumers and financiers of universities are simply wrong.  Want to change this?  Pressurise the Labour Party to commit to reversing the government university funding policy and vote for them if they do, and insist they make good on that.  And realise that a top-quality education system with has fair access requires state funding, and that in turn requires taxation, especially of the rich.

Thus far I have set out why the claims made by RYL are misleading, why it won't (and indeed can't) do what it claims.  My objection to the site is so far based mostly on its essential fraudulence.  But you might say it's still pretty harmless even so, especially if no one in any position will take any notice of it (and they won't, any more than US universities take any serious notice of RMP).  It is not useful but it is not harmless.

What, then, is the point of RYL?

Michael Bulman, the owner of RYL, clearly, from his statements on the site, knows nothing about British higher education, as all the above makes clear.  But that does not matter to him.  The purpose of his creation of the site is simply to make money.  By creating a site that will get thousands, indeed millions, of hits he can charge for advertising space on it and make a tidy profit.  Let's be absolutely clear about this.

The purpose of RYL is not to improve HE; it is cynically to cash in on the obscene situation where you, the students, have to pay for your higher education.

For that reason alone, if you actually care about UKHE, you, the students, should shun it.

There are however, lastly, very serious moral or ethical issues about sites like this.  They further the pernicious and spreading culture of bullying, cowardly, anonymous abuse.  Bill Cooke (author of the 'Dancing Bears' piece linked to at the top) argues that it will stop lecturers from giving negative feedback on students.  Actually I think that most lecturers have more guts than that.  I have recently finished teaching the worst 'Barbarian Migrations' class that I have taught in 17 years. They weren't stupid (far from it), they weren't unpleasant (even further from it), they weren't even lazy, overall.  But they seemed just to have no commitment to the course and its requirements, showed no initiative, couldn't be bothered to discuss things or talk in class.  I tried with them; I put a lot of thought into the course organisation and seminar set-up; I held a discussion half way through about how I could improve the class.  To no avail.  So I have said as much on their reports.  Most are mature and self-aware enough to take it on the chin.  At least one, though, is puerile enough to write something nasty on RYL as a result.  So be it.  If I get another class like that I'll do the same.  RYL is not going to stop me calling it how it is.  But I should not, nevertheless, have to take public abuse on the internet for doing so, just for doing what I see as my job: abuse that anyone (such as colleagues in other universities) can read without knowing the context behind it.

But I am an old hand who generally (as I said) gets good feedback (even from that 'Barbarians' class).  Let me give you an example that raises more serious issues.

A few years ago we had a young lecturer who was given the task of giving a survey lecture course to the first-years.  This is a serious and daunting task, with a large audience.  Maybe we shouldn't have saddled her with it, though everyone has to start somewhere, and it's the sort of thing I had to do, back in the mists of time, in my first job.  I guess one or two lecturers are brilliant from the off but most aren't.  Even the best are a bit rubbish at first, as they'll admit - even if they tend to be rubbish in an entertaining or endearing way (as I hope may have been the case with me) rather than a boring or incompetent way.  But one thing you often do when you start is to have a script and read it.  It is a prop for confidence and it makes sure you stay to time and on the point.  But it also (usually) means you have far too much to get across.  And so it was.  Unfortunately this lecturer was also up against (in the other survey courses) experienced and popular lecturing old hands.  I had to review the feedback on this course and it was vicious.  Unfair, rude, unhelpful, destructive, sexist.  Indeed I really think that a male lecturer who did the same would not have faced the same abuse.  It was, in short, bullying; bullying a bright young woman starting out on her career.  This was bad enough in internal feedback.  Imagine what it would be like if those students had published all that on the internet for all to see.  Apart from potentially harming employment or career prospects, how would it feel to read all that about yourself?  To adapt the famous quote of (I think) George Bernard Shaw, 90% of lecturers will admit to liking reading gushing praise about themselves from students, and 10% will lie.  Similarly no one apart from the super-thick-skinned likes reading bad feedback or rude comments about themselves, even if 1% of the total return, even if manifestly unfair, even if patently written by someone who never turned up and did no work.  So this sort of thing could easily drive someone with great promise out of the entire educational sector.  Indeed some of the students started a Facebook group that had that abuse about that lecturer on it - which I shut down pronto.  The problem with the attitude that the anonymous, 'drive by' abuse culture fosters is that is is one wherein one does not think about how comments affect the recipient.  It fosters the idea that you have no responsibility.  These are all very bad things.  The fact that it goes on all over the place, from comments strands and Facebook through to Amazon does not make it right or justify the production of yet more.

The Union should provide legal assistance to back action to have lecturers removed from the site, thus making it even more meaningless.  It should also sue Bulman's ass for any even remotely bullying or offensive material.  I doubt it will do either.

But otherwise, by way of response, how about 'Rate Your Students'?  Lecturers could (anonymously of course) name the students on their courses and grade them on their punctuality, attendance, ability to write, manners, reliability, performance in class.  Maybe they could add free text comments on their personalities and defects, and maybe a chilli or two on their general 'hotness'?  There would be every bit as much justification for this.  We educate people who then go out into the wide world and are employed.  Thus the employers of our students are 'stakeholders' (in awful New Labour Speak) in UK Higher Education and deserve candid information to be made freely available about their potential employees that goes beyond anodyne results break-downs and reference-ese. The people who - though they may not pay the fees - pay much else towards students' education need also to be sure that the students are working hard enough.  Those who make the loans deserve to know whether they are backing a sound investment.  And education is a two-way street.  Students deserve to know whether their fellow students in a class are going to be collaborative and supportive or whether they are going to be the sort that sit in seminars never saying a thing, who make no contribution to class discussions or group work - in other words, who piggy-back on everyone else's hard work.  It would be the only way of raising standards among UK students.  Why not?  Additionally, it'd get loads of hits as a site - maybe more than RYL - and generate a decent advertising revenue.  [Get in touch Mr Bulman.]  But can you imagine what the students' response to that would be?!  But why the outrage?  If you're opposed to being publicly, anonymously rated it must be because you're a shit, lazy student who's only at university to drink and get laid, right?

Sorry to be dim...

... but can someone tell me how you square laying wreaths at a cenotaph as an act of respect with doing Nazi salutes afterwards?  I'm just curious about this one.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

End of world nigh


Say no more.

Incidentally, the law of the land states that no one may illegally store your name and details in a retrieval system (e.g. computer) so any lecturer/professor etc who does not want to be listed on this site has valid legal grounds for insisting that s/he be removed from it.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The vicar has lost his bike (in which I share a cunning plan)

So now we know for sure that the US government spies on facebook, e-mails and all the rest.  The UK
London has posted the video of the kitten playing
with a printer, comrades.  It's time to act.
government has been trying to pass a snooper's act for some time.  So here is my cunning plan to respond to this.

Many of you may know that during WWII the BBC World Service used to end its news broadcasts with 'and now some personal messages'.  There would then follow a series of random statements: the vicar has lost his bike.  Susan is looking forward to the holiday.  Mr Jones has gone to evensong.  Johnie played well in soccer today.  Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.  [Some of the items were lines from plays or poems.]

The point was that none of these could be decoded.  Most was gibberish.  But in amongst them were lines that the resistance had been told to expect, and when they heard them, that meant that something pre-arranged would happen that night (or whenever).  Before D-Day (if I remember correctly) a line of a poem was broadcast; when the next line was read out, that meant, the invasion is coming tonight/tomorrow, etc.  German intelligence apparently guessed this one right but the supreme command refused to believe it.

So my cunning plan is to jam the e-airwaves with gibberish, have our own codes for what they mean, or not even that. Just clog the system up with things that don't make any sense.

And now some personal messages:
The vicar has lost his bike.


P.s.  My mate asks, 'isn't this just what Twitter is anyway?'  I fear he has a point.

Freddie has gone for pizza.

Friday, 7 June 2013

History and Finitude (in which I embrace my historiographical pointlessness)

While I was in Princeton I got to thinking about paradigms, paradigm-shifts and the problem I have
Look at that.  No boots, reflector vest or hard hat.
Health and safety would never let you get
 away with that nowadays.  At least he's bending his knees.
mentioned before about what History does after the Linguistic Turn, after the realisation that we can't just tell it like it was (even if there are regions, such as the Thames valley between the Strand and the Cherwell, where the Linguistic Turn hasn't happened yet).  

The prompt for this was Pat Geary saying that he hoped that his current - very important - project on historical DNA would lead to a way out of the 'impasse', as he called it between those who still see the fifth-century west in terms of invasions by undeveloped barbarians and those who regard such a narrative as a romantic construct and who see the period more in terms of 'civil war' (i.e. like me).  I pondered to myself, gloomily, that I didn't think there actually was an impasse.  My arguments and those of people who think like me have made little or no headway against the dominant migrationist paradigm.  This, I continued to muse, was not because of the undecidability of the scarce data; it certainly wasn't because of the greater subtlety and explanatory force of the arguments put forward in defence of the dominant paradigm.  It was for reasons far better explained by Pierre Bourdieu than by Thomas Kuhn: straight issues of cultural capital and hegemony.  All this seemed more than amply illustrated by the two papers submitted by members of 'The Old Boys' School', both of which blithely disregarded or waved away the whole generation of scholarship that disagreed with the migrationist model.  One indeed did little more than uncritically ventriloquise the oft-repeated thesis of 'The Old Boys' School's' golden boy of migration studies, with no acknowledgement of the myriad problems in that model (problems that deserve acknowledgement even if you think that that model  is superior to its alternatives).  You can't change paradigms when exponents of the other view don't even consider you worthy of having a debate with.

[Fill in a couple of angry paragraphs about the viciously reactionary early medieval history establishment in the UK and its leaderene; about why there'll be no Kuhnian paradigm-shift; about why I write what I like on my blog because as far as my UK career is concerned I have nothing to lose; etc.]

And that's all absolutely fine.

That was my revelation.

Like many, I suspect, who (in my case at least) dabble in the dark ways of existentialist atheism, the principal problem facing us in modern life is that of finitude.  That is to say, how do you cope with the finitude of human existence after the death of God, after disillusionment with the horrors of messianic or millenarian politics (on which, though problematic, this is an OK guide), after - in other words - the grounds for the old certainties have been cut away, without descending into nihilism.  I recently read Simon Critchley's Very Little ... Almost Nothing, which was what introduced me to Jean-Luc Nancy's La Communauté Désoeuvrée, which in turn I used in a very round-about way in my piece on The Crisis of the State.  That is about deconstructing 'work', finding value in life, without transcendence.  All that made me think, as Pat was speaking, about the futility about worrying about a historical career in terms of paradigm shifts, of changing people's minds, of convincing people.  (I have tended to get depressed about not making a difference, being ignored etc.)  The problem discussed by Critchley is analogous to the problem facing History after the linguistic turn.  In the face of the knowledge that one cannot tell it wie es eigentlich gewesen, does one simply become a nihilist and deny all possibility of history as a redescription of the past?  What basis remains for a role for history in society, if not simple factual rectitude?  What role for the academic if story-telling is as well or better done by amateurs?  Or does one simply ignore these points, or fudge them and go on with some sort of adherence to the old transcendent goals of finding out what really happened and why?

And yet it seems to me that one does have to have a reason to do history, to take a salary for doing it.  Simply being a scholar for scholarship's sake does not cut it - not for me or I suspect any one from my sort of background, where having - let alone inheriting - an academic job/career was not exactly something I thought was on the career radar until I actually got one.

The solution that occurred to me was this.  To embrace the actual act of 'doing history', without having to have any transcendent goal or product in mind.  If one opens up to the fact that the act of thinking through the historical enterprise has the benefits I have discussed before - if it allows me to engage with and make some minimal - infinitessimal - political or ethical intervention in it, then that is what is important, regardless of  its effects.  It is an ongoing activity, or conversation, with no necessary output in the usual transcendent terms: an inheritance; a corpus, an oeuvre; a paradigm change; a thesis.  Maybe there is some potential access to more satisfaction in what I do there.  Maybe it's what people (people without ego problems like mine) do in any case, in which case I salute you.  I only just got there.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Crisis of the State

[Here is the paper I pre-circulated for a really interesting conference called ‘Worlds in Motion: Rome, China and the Eurasian Steppe in Late Antiquity’ held last week at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  My great thanks to Michael Maas and Nicola di Cosmo for the invitation to attend.  For the doubtless hundreds of you who have been following this, it's the latest stage in my thinking about the issue of the state in late antiquity.  This begins with the same old same old about the decline of governmental apparatus and the rise of the aristocracy, but then moves on to address other, perhaps more subtle issues.  It comes to the same conclusion in the end, that to call western polities after 600 'states' is to rob the word state of any analytical value.  In discussion it was pointed out, possibly - probably? - rightly, that to concentrate on whether something was or wasn't a state distracts attention from important issues, but as there have been many works recently arguing that early medieval kingdoms were states, I am worried that this isn't an attempt to stifle opposition to the ... consensus.  Now read on.]


(I am aware that this is all very provisional and probably quite disjointed.  Some of the confusion may have righted itself in my mind by the end of May; some may not.  I crave indulgence for all that and look forward to your thoughts!  As this work stems from an on-going project, many of my references are to unpublished, unreferenced texts of lectures that I’ve posted on my blog.  Other referencing is very rudimentary but (I hope) indicative.  Apologies for those rough edges, too.)

For the last few years I have been looking at changes that took place in western Europe between the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh.  This was a crucial period – as indeed it was in the eastern Mediterranean, as has long been known – but the fission of western European history into different national histories following the rupture of the unifying  grand narrative of Roman imperial history means that this change is less widely appreciated there.  Nonetheless, important change there was, recognisable in all the different regions of the West, in the different thematic types of history – economic, religious, social, religious, intellectual, military, political &c. – not only in the images that our sources present but in the forms which the evidence itself takes and in the quantitative extent and geographical spread of its survival.  

Clearly something major was going on, even if the details, the responses, and the trajectories of development were different from region to region.  A key aspect is change in the nature of political structures.  At least in the first quarter of the sixth century, perhaps the first third, up to the start of Justinian’s wars, conveniently beginning in 533, western European politics were still played out within an imperial framework – perhaps to an even greater degree than we have envisaged.

As a corollary, it is probably not surprising that government continued in recognisably Roman fashion.  For all that we are used to conceiving of them as ‘Germanic’ kingdoms in this period, it is very difficult indeed to find much that can cogently be called Germanic or even barbarian.  Certainly there were new elements in western rulership but these developed within a distinctively late imperial framework.  It is worth remembering how new kingship was and the extent to which it was being made up by political actors as they went along.  It may also be that even as late as the early sixth century it was not regarded as a permanent or even ideal solution to the problems thrown up by the fifth century, even by those occupying royal thrones.  This is not to suggest lumpen continuity of form, but a continuity of the tramlines within which change took place.  At least by the mid-seventh century, something important had changed in all of this.  

At the same time, changes occurred in the nature of social structures, most significantly with a growth in local aristocratic power.  Not unconnected to this were profound economic transformations.  Simultaneously, too, there were shifts in royal ideology and in aspects of religious life.  All these areas are closely interrelated and focus upon the interaction between central government and local power.  For those reasons I want to explore them under the rubric of the crisis of the state.  In terms of this workshop, the significance of this is that the change proposed will have little to do with the usually supposed catalysts for political change in the late antique West: the barbarian migrations and the western Empire’s political demise.  This means that it proposes a rather different chronology for change.  Traditionally, shifts in western political structures have been supposed to have occurred in the fifth century, with the migrations and the end of the Empire.  Realisation that drastic political change, as opposed to traumatic political events, did not happen then produced a counter-view of continuity across the period, perhaps right through to the Carolingian period.1  Similarly, in a Frankish context, old ideas of major transformation around the mid-eighth century with the dynastic change from Merovingians to the Carolingians have been replaced with an awareness of continuities across that divide.2  However, the idea of long-term continuity or slow evolution seems to me to be equally unsatisfactory.  I hope to demonstrate that something pretty dramatic did happen between the Fall of the West and the Rise of the Carolingians, but not when, or in the way that, we have been used to thinking.

There will be a weak and a strong thesis to this paper.  The weak thesis is that a crisis of the state occurred around 600; that changes took place which compelled a real shake up in the ways in which central and local power interacted, a critical moment which, whether or not it did, at least could have produced a breakdown of the state.  A supplementary to the weak thesis is that these changes killed off the ‘Roman World’ that is still so visible in, say, 525-30.3  One might entitle this ‘weak thesis’ ‘the end of the late antique state in the West’.  The ‘strong thesis’ is that the result of these changes was the end of political formations that can usefully be analysed as states in any way.  With a slight but important change in the word order, the strong thesis can be entitled ‘the end of the state in the late antique West’.

Theory (1)

Marxist and non-Marxist, Weberian definitions of a state converge on key issues.  Two examples from consciously opposed theoretical camps may serve to prove this.  First of all, Michael Mann:

The state is a differentiated set of institutions and personnel embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards to cover a territorially demarcated area, over which it claims a monopoly of binding and permanent rule-making, backed up by physical violence.4

Mann, of course, also argued that a state had to control all four of his sources of social power: ideological, economic, military and political.  He also, interestingly, completely skipped over the period that concerns me today.  Indeed, as far as I can see the whole 5-600 years of the early middle ages constitute the only era of recorded human political history in Europe that he did skip.  Nevertheless, he does say that some post-imperial states existed but that they were small and short-lived.5  I contend that he is wrong on both of these counts, certainly for the period before 600, less so thereafter.

Secondly, John Haldon’s, from The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, a Marxist work written explicitly to counter Mann’s modified Weberianism:

[A state is] ‘a set of institutions and personnel concentrated spatially at a single point and exerting authority over a territorially distinct area.6

To take a third example, Chris Wickham’s definition of the state turns on five things: 7 
  1. The centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army)
  2. The specialisation of governmental roles with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time;
  3. The concept of public power …;
  4. Independent and stable resources for rulers;5. A class-based system of surplus-extraction and stratification

This might broadly be acceptable as a definition.  Such a definition tallies reasonably well with those of other thinkers, including those who work on the middle ages, such as Susan Reynolds.8  It is broad enough to encompass a range of state forms, but also strict enough to rule out other forms of complex political organisation.  Yet, if the definitions given by Mann, Haldon and Wickham are uncontroversial, they apply badly to western Europe after c.600, as I hope to demonstrate.  

More recent work on putative early medieval states has moved too far in the opposite direction.  The success of early medieval regimes in ensuring that local holders of power bought into their legitimacy surely produced politically coherent kingdoms or polities (to use more descriptively neutral terminology) but a politically coherent polity, I would contend, is not necessarily a state.9  Nor is the eternal retreat of the term down the political chain of command – to lordships, logically, I suppose, ultimately to Germanic Hausherrschaft or Roman patria potestas – a solution.  The fashionable consensus view of medieval politics suffers from many problems, not least a lack of any sophisticated analysis of the reactionary and repressive work that the word consensus does, then and now.10  This cosily politically-conservative view simultaneously negates the violence involved in lordship and the violent competition that is all-too-visible in royal and aristocratic politics.  Ironically, although this view glosses over ideological implications of the word consensus it fails to address the actual weakness of political centre; it fails to see that the extent of negotiation involved in dealing with local power circuits speaks of a degree of governmental weakness that surely prevents any analytically apt use of the term state to describe early medieval kingdoms.  

There is also a simple materialist, economic point to make in the context of the early middle ages and that is that surplus and the means of generating it were finite.  Surplus came overwhelmingly from the land, generated by the finite resource of human and animal muscle power.  Land was finite, obviously, and technologies for making economically marginal landscapes agriculturally productive did not yet exist.  Nor did means of improving the agricultural yield of estates, even if yields may not always have been as knife’s-edge as we have often thought.11  The economy was largely non-monetary, keying rewards for political and other service and the means by which elite status was maintained to the produce of designated lands.  Commerce was small-scale, overall and there was no system of banking or state credit.  Thus in some sense the grant of surplus from one person or institution to another did in some sense mean the loss of some part of the basis of power and its transfer to someone else.  In this sense the old ‘zero-sum’ idea of the relationship between rulers and aristocrats has some fundamental merit and this is why the nature of such transfers and the articulation of the extraction of surplus are the location for so much of the dynamics of early medieval political change.12  The first area of change I want briefly to describe thus concerns the demise of what might be termed state apparatus and the growth of the power of the local aristocracy.

Evidence for Change (1): The Efficiency of State Apparatus

Some words on regional variation

In describing the changes that took place across the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh I focus on Gaul/Francia, the area I know best.  There were of course important differences in detail from one area to another, which I cannot do justice to in the space available, even where I am aware of them!  At a higher level of analysis, though, it is also clear that trajectories of change were not identical everywhere.  

The essential outlines seem similar in England and in northern Gaul.  There are important similarities in Spain too although much remains to be clarified.  (I hope that I may have been able to clarify my own thoughts a little more by the time of the workshop…)  The traditional debate has been over the supposed weakness of the later Visigothic kingdom, an image that ought to fit the general outlines of the thesis I am proposing.  Nonetheless thirty years ago Roger Collins put forward a very convincing counter argument that seventh-century Spain should be regarded as a strong and centralised kingdom.  It may be that the local power and independence of the later Visigothic aristocracy was rather less impressive than we think and thus the dynamic of their relationship with the royal court somewhat different from what is often envisaged.  Similarly, in Lombard Italy something of a rethink of traditional ideas may be necessary.  By the eighth century the Lombards had created an impressively centralised kingdom in Italy but it is difficult to project this image confidently back to the late sixth or the start of the seventh.  The written evidence upon which it is based is almost entirely eighth-century.  Most of the seventh century lacks decent documentary records and – as in Spain – the archaeological data may paint a picture that is rather different.  

A strong possibility at a macro scale, therefore, is that there was a different trajectory of development in southern and northern Europe.  Through much of the sixth century, patterns of trade around the Mediterranean, however they may have declined in scale, remained broadly within a late Roman framework; certainly there was more long-distance commerce than is visible in the north-west of Europe at that time, and the exchange network reached round as far as the eastern shores of the Irish Sea.  Economic changes around 600 produced a change in patterns and a decline in the Mediterranean system, while long-distance trade and economy revived around the North Sea.  Those economic shifts might well be an important part of any explanation for different socio-political trajectories in north and south.  Although real economic decline in the Mediterranean seems to me only really to set in, and the contrast between North Sea and Mediterranean economies to become starkest, rather later, at the end of the seventh century, the seeds of that change may belong to my period.13

Another interesting development in the northern area is a break-down in the differences between regions that had once formed a part of the Roman Empire and those which had not.  Ironically this may be related to ideas about the end of the Roman world and the analogous effects this had on regions inside and outside the old limes.14  This is a point that has emerged as the result of some research into what is now Scotland, and the development of Pictish society and politics.15  One way in which the old differences were eroded is in the survival of evidence.  In the sixth century, large swathes of former barbaricum lack diagnostic archaeological evidence as well as written sources.  In the seventh, this changes dramatically.  Here, then, it might be that the general outlines of social and political development were more similar to those in my geographically and analytically central case-study of Gaul.

‘State Apparatus’

There might be something of a chicken-and-egg relationship between the growth of aristocratic power and the decline of the old state apparatus but I will talk about the latter first and then move on to other evidence for the increase in aristocratic authority in the localities.

First, tax.  How sixth-century tax was levied is a difficult matter.  Much of the West, especially north of the Loire, was effectively non-monetary; everywhere north of the Pyrenees, outside Marseille, lacked small denomination currency.  A regular standing army and large central bureaucracy, the recipients of much of the late imperial government’s taxation in money or in kind, no longer existed.16  In a fifth- and sixth-century context, though, the point of taxation may have been less about revenue than about patronage.  That is to say that most tax remained in the areas where it was levied, as a salary for royal officers there.  Whatever was levied as bullion, possibly in the form of old coins, might have been passed on to the centre.   Nonetheless, the fact was that, however revenue was raised and whatever it was used for, post-imperial governments taxed.  That is crystal clear from the sources, which not only mention taxes and revolts against raises in the tax-rate or what was held to be against unjust taxation, but also refer to tax-lists.  It has also long been known that some late Roman taxes have lineal descendants in the dues levied by the lords of ninth-century estates.  Other – lesser – duties and obligations that the king could still call upon, at least in theory, at that date also seem to derive from late imperial taxation.  In 1982, Walter Goffart proposed that, as the lords had long since appropriated the more important revenues, immunities from these minor revenues and obligations were all that was left to ninth-century kings to reward their followers.  Goffart has subsequently adopted a more extreme position, whereby all late Roman taxation continued without a break into the ninth century.17  This aligns him with French historians like Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier and Jean Durliat but the argument for extreme fiscal continuity remains a minority position.  

Goffart’s 1982 argument was more persuasive, especially in its contestation that taxation itself withered around 600 in Gaul.  If there was any post-imperial taxation in Britain, and there’s really no good reason to suppose that there wasn’t (other than the silence of the documentary record, a record so nearly non-existant that it is silent about just about everything), then similarly, by the time one gets to the earliest surviving written data, forms of revenue have clearly followed the same path, with more or less the same survivals, as in Gaul.  In the earlier seventh century, references begin to immunities, into which royal officers could not enter to collect whatever dues remained to the fisc.18  The same seems to be true in the north of Italy in the Lombard kingdom, although we could hardly claim to be well-served by relevant evidence.  Paul the Deacon’s story about the distribution of the northern Italian Roman population among the Lombards as tributarii might be an index that taxation was still in operation or it could be a sign that Italy was already seeing a development in the nature of military service that is better documented in Gaul very slightly later.19  Given the political circumstances, the latter may well be preferable.  The fate of taxation in Spain by the seventh century is an area where I need to do more research.  Explaining this change means dealing with more than the practical difficulties of collecting revenue in kind, especially given that taxation appears to have withered precisely when something of an economic revival took place in north-western Europe, including the reintroduction of coinage.  

Another crucial factor, well evidenced in all areas under discussion, is the spread of a political/ethnic identity hitherto associated with military service and at least partial tax-exemption, to more or less complete equivalence with legal free status.  By this I mean Frankish identity in northern Gaul, Gothic in Spain, Lombard in northern Italy and English in lowland Britain.  The issue of identity is one to which I shall return.

The allusion to military service brings us to another principal means by which late antique states impinged on the lives of their subjects, enabling a central government to ensure that its authority penetrated local communities.20  The standing army withered in western Europe in the fifth century, at least in its usually understood, Roman, form.  Nevertheless, that being said, later fifth- and sixth-century armed forces had clearly developed from the last imperial armies.  As just intimated, they were founded around the levying of a group of privileged freemen whose status was probably inherited, or inheritable, and based on a real, or claimed, ‘barbarian’ ethnicity.  This situation pertains in almost all of the areas where we have clear written evidence and probably applied in those where we don’t, if one can extrapolate from the symbolism of artefacts placed with the male dead in areas like Anglo-Saxon England.  As far as one can tell (in the areas with written evidence), these individuals were called out within administrative districts, civitates and commanded by royal officials.  Because of the importance of their patronage and the access to power that military service provided, Kings continued to be able to use these armies as independent coercive forces against recalcitrant aristocrats and other rebels.  

As far as the Frankish kingdoms are concerned this means of raising an army had more or less completely eroded by the mid-seventh century.  By that date it seems clear that armies were being raised from aristocrats and their clienteles.  Instead of being described as drawn from particular administrative units, civitates, the elements of Frankish armies start being described as scarae – shearings off – and the implication seems to be that although the idea of military service as a general obligation had far from disappeared, it was now heavily moderated by ties of dependence and lordship.  A description of an army campaigning in Burgundy about a century later sums up the new situation ‘a multitude of magnates and a great band of their followers’.21  A similar process towards an army with aristocratic retinues has been identified in Gothic Spain and at this date Anglo-Saxon armies seem to be broadly similar.22  Indeed the military history of Anglo-Saxon England runs along a very similar course to that of early medieval Francia.  The heads of these bands do not command simply by virtue of royal office, as had been the case in the sixth century, but from their socio-economic standing.

At about this time, the immunities alluded to earlier are much more frequently documented, in forms that apply to aristocratic or church estates.  Kings envisaged areas into which their officers could not enter unbidden, either to collect revenue or, it would seem from the inclusion of the haribann in the list of things they weren’t allowed to collect, enforce military service.

The last area of state apparatus that I want briefly to discuss is the law.  Obviously, the Roman state had applied its law universally by means of its appointed officers, even while admitting the private jurisdiction of fathers, slave-owners and other lords over certain types of tenants, while admitting the jurisdiction of army courts and while syphoning off some classes of case to ecclesiastical courts.  The same system persisted through the sixth century, although episcopal courts may have broadened their competence and (in some areas) military jurisdiction morphed into the class of laws dealing with relationships between ‘Romans’ and ‘barbarians’.  Generally speaking, the state administered the law through its counts, centenarii and so on, with provision for appeals from one level of court to the next, possibly as far as the king himself.  The legal category of lèse majesté remained to create what we might consider as a ‘state of exception’.

Obviously the law has never applied – and still does never apply – evenly across all of the classes of a polity, whatever the theory may have dictated.  It was a commonplace under Rome that the rich man could buy himself all sorts of judicial rulings and influence court decisions where his interests were concerned.  Plus ça change…  Nonetheless it is interesting that seventh-century law shows a much greater concern with attempts by aristocrats to interpose themselves between the officers of the court and the cases they were trying.  Visigothic law mentions the disruption of court proceedings with various forms of ‘tumult’, sometimes specified to be carried out by the powerful patrons of one or other litigant.23  Frankish laws make special provision for the trial of a freeman in obsequio to another freeman (a relationship, by the way, not even recognised in sixth-century legislation) apparently aimed at preventing more powerful ingenui from sheltering their followers from the law.24  These may be no more than differences of nuance from earlier situations, if that.  Nevertheless they seem to point towards broader and more significant trends.  Again, the creation of immunities is very significant.  There were now formally-recognised gaps in the coverage of the law of the realm, no-fly zones, spaces where the royal writ did not run.  This seems to me to be something much more significant than a simple extension of patria potestas or Hausherrschaft.  If one is looking for the basis of what I am increasingly coming to think of the unworked, federalist nature of early medieval politics, it is probably to be sought in the immunity.

By way of concluding this section, one can argue that the aristocracy, had managed to position itself between the kings or the central government and the local population, in the extraction of surplus, the raising of armed forces and frequently the operation of the law.   It is clear that this did not affect the cohesion – or at least the basic unity – of the western kingdoms, north or south of the Pyrenees, for different reasons, but it does equally make it clear that there was a marked decrease in the ability of whoever controlled the centre of the realm to enforce his writ in the locales of the kingdom.  This decrease is marked in the actual institutions of the kingdom, not simply a contingent, practical difficulty.  Many states go through phases where their ability to make their writ run is seriously compromised, but without the formal apparatus of government changing.  

Aristocratic power

Again, my comments will focus on Gaul but, although this is not a generally-held view, I am increasingly of the opinion that the same general development took place in Britain and elsewhere in the north-west, inside and outside the former imperial limes.  These changes focus upon a tightening or intensification of local power networks.  As before, Spain remains a difficult region to categorise although some issues of the Italian situation may be less problematic.  In the latter area the direction of change could very well be quite the opposite of that in Gaul.

That there was an increase in the authority of local and regional aristocrats in northern Gaul around 600 is difficult to gainsay.  I have long argued for the point of view that sees the northern Gallic or Frankish aristocracy as essentially a service aristocracy without local bases of power that securely confirmed them in their élite status and allowed the transfer of the latter from one generation to another, independently of an association with the Merovingian state.  Written sources and various forms of archaeological data converge to give this impression.  Historiographically, this has long been a matter of debate and opinion remains divided.  There is no space to go into the details here.25  What matters is that there was a significant change around 600 (which one would have to concede whether or not one accepted my interpretation of it).  Legal evidence and changes in the archaeological record make clear the existence of a more stratified society with a more secure control over local surplus by the aristocracy.26  Other written (and some archaeological) sources suggest that this aristocracy was able to project its power more confidently into the future, to evade local legal custom and separate itself from the community in matters of burial.  The evidence for an economic upsurge and a revival of urban sites in this period underlines this, as – obviously – do the ways by which the aristocracy was able to interpose itself between the operation of the central government and the power circuits of local society.  Central to this change, as I have argued previously,27 was a change in the means by which surplus was articulated to support the position of the dominant class.  This is a change – in Wickham’s terms – from tax-based power to land-based, although it should be noted that my chronology for this change differs from his.  The relative local power of the southern Gallic – Aquitanian – nobility does not seems to have changed as drastically, although its relationship to central government may have shifted importantly in some of the same ways, as I will suggest further below.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the absence of fifth-and sixth-century written data makes precise discussion of the transformation difficult, but the archaeological record shows considerable similarities with that in northern Gaul and the documents that emerge in the course of the seventh century suggest that the changes brought analogous results to those in Francia.  The standard view of the period has tended to envisage the appearance of kingship in this period, but the evidence for such a supposition is weak and marred by too insular a focus.  It is as likely that what the decades around 600 witnessed was the fragmentation of larger political units into smaller, more intensive lordships.  In England some of these became known as kingdoms but their relationship to a larger political arena does seem to have remained.28  In northern Britain, changes in the archaeological record around 600 have also frequently been ascribed to a growth in the Pictish kingdom, a step on a road to a ‘Pictish state’, but again the material might rather reflect a shift from extensive kingdoms to smaller more intensively governed political units.29  Widespread changes well-documented in Ireland at about the same time might represent the final working through of a similar process.30

As noted, the nature of the Spanish aristocracy is less clear than we might have thought.  Wickham correctly pointed out the disjunction between the impression of wealth that one might obtain from the written sources and the rather different picture painted by the material cultural record.31  He also plausibly drew attention to some possibly misleading terminology in Spanish documents.  Spanish villas do not seem to have survived much beyond the start of the sixth century and it may be that communities became more closely grouped around churches which in turn were new foci for aristocratic display and authority.  It would nevertheless appear that aristocrats remained closely bound to their communities.32  An apparent spread of the, admittedly muted, custom of furnished burial might suggest that displays of status to local society were important in transmitting status from one generation to the next.  The difference between sixth- and seventh-century distribution of grave-goods burial might, however, be skewed by a concentration in the former period upon burials supposed to mark Gothic settlement.  Grave-goods burials without such material culture are more widespread across the peninsula.  Provisionally, I propose the fairly anodyne conclusion that the seventh-century Spanish aristocracy was significantly different in nature from its fifth- and possibly sixth-century precursors.  Its relative wealth and independence are difficult to establish but the sources suggest a number of analogous changes, during the seventh century, to those occurring in Francia.  The impossibility of hammering the Spanish situation into a neat framework of relative growth and decline may be a good way of introducing my second area of analysis.  Nonetheless, to conclude this first section, the evidence seems fairly clear that the ability of seventh-century governments across to the West to penetrate local society in order to extract surplus, maintain a coercive force and ensure that its writ ran was significantly curtailed by comparison with the sixth century.

Theory (2)

In a purely Gallic context my explanation long focused more or less exclusively upon the issues just discussed: competition for resources and authority between (to put it crudely) kings and their aristocrats, with the aristocrats winning out.  The catalyst for the change was the series of royal minorities in Gaul that began in 575.33  There might yet, descriptively, be something in this but the idea has more recently seemed to me to be inadequate.  Why should a loosening of the royal grip on patronage etc. automatically have led not only to aristocrats rushing to establish themselves more securely (which might seem reasonable) but also to changing their relationship with central authority so that the former operated less efficiently than before?  Roman aristocrats had been incredibly powerful without feeling the need for this sort of conflict or competition with the state.  My analysis began to shift towards a more ideological focus, to concentrate – again to borrow a phrase from Wickham – on how ‘the state lost consent’.34  Probably not coincidentally that led me to think more about Gramscian ideas of hegemony and the differences between political and civil society, ideology and so on.35  Ultimately that produced a greater concern to link material change to transformations in ideas.36    

The problem I encountered is well summed up by Mike Braddick in his discussion of the early modern English state.37  An emphasis on central power and force tends to play down the reality of states in much of history.  Central power inter-relates with other circuits.   It is this interaction that is crucial.  This is what recent work on the putative early medieval state has stressed but, to my mind, drawn unconvincing conclusions from.38  The issues remain of the degree to which local power circuits rely upon the central government for their articulation and functioning and the extent to which the central authority can over-ride local powers to impose its will.  This relationship is, of course, dynamic.  In the final analysis force is crucial39 but a concentration upon it is potentially misleading, as Braddick notes.  A state that must routinely employ force to ensure that its writ runs would today be classed as ‘failing’.  On the other hand, a state may not be able to employ its coercive force because of political difficulties, without ceasing to be a state.  If an army stands aside in the face of a political coup, or joins the rebels, we may witness failure a régime’s failure but not the end of a state, unless the institutions governing the army’s existence collapse with it.  This point has been central to numerous analyses, such as Althusser’s.40  

We must, therefore, not simply discuss changes in what one might think of as the ‘headline’ issues of state authority – fiscal imposts, military service, the operation of the law – but to look at more subtle, but perhaps also more important areas of interaction between the local and the central.  We must explore a slightly different range of issues, including many of those which have been, rightly, discussed by those recently wanting to adopt the terminology of the state as valuable for early medieval history.  These will include the spatial nodes of political action and their relationship to the government, office and of the legitimacy of local authority, political subjectivity and the character of the political community.  In all of these areas, I propose a major shift between the sixth and the seventh century which greatly changes how we might use the term ‘state’.  Indeed I contend that they make the term inappropriate.  The discussion has a certain contemporary resonance with what Rancière has described as the retreat of the political.41  The British Conservative Party has wedded itself to a process of replacing ‘the Big State’ with ‘the Big Society’ (no one quite knows what this means; essentially it is a form of post-industrial feudalism…).

Most of the issues mentioned above are fairly self-explanatory.  The last two, however, may require a little more by way of introduction.  By political subjectivity I mean the ways in which a socio-political actor is formed.  What (if any) part does the state play in the formation of the subject?  Closely related to this issue is that of the nature of the political community.  The existence of community has seemed enough to some analysts to justify the validity of the concept of the state.  However, as with the related term consensus this requires closer scrutiny.  In this context I will employ some thinking by Jean-Luc Nancy in his joint work (with Christophe Bailly) La Comparution and his La Communauté Désoeuvrée.42  I am not going to use this in any direct way, for many reasons.  It emerged in the aftermath of communism’s collapse in the context of the question of what the Left could retain of the communist project, and how.  Nonetheless, I will employ some issues arising from this discussion as a springboard to opening up some areas of debate apparently foreclosed by current discussions.  

One point of contact – one that increasingly strikes me as an important and fruitful line of investigation – is the renegotiation of terms of community in a period when long-standing bases for such have been swept away.  Another is the opening up and exploration of the interstices between consensus, integration and assimilation (politically-laden terms) and communal identity, and competition, coercion and alterity.  What attracts me in Nancy’s work is the deconstructive move involved in his notion of désoeuvrement, the opening of a space for an understanding of community in difference, community that is not the object of a work.  I am not going to push any of the ‘respect for the other’ that comes with Nancy’s comparution, even if there is use to be made of this.  The idea of political community not based around overarching identity or collectivity or perhaps even hegemony in the Gramscian sense, but on more contingent constellations of social and political actors, might bear exploration.  The attempts to create overriding identities to unite political communities is another dynamic of medieval political action.

Evidence of Change (2)

The spaces of the political

In the Empire and the post-imperial sixth century, the areas in which politics was enacted were places connected with the state, the imperial or royal court (or courts), the cities and other administrative nodes of the realm, peripatetic courts of presided over by royal officers, the army: unproblematically public spaces.  The cities and the lesser administrative centres (the vici, castra and castella) were the location for competitive aristocratic displays.  The episcopal network was, largely, based upon that of the administration of the late Roman Empire, as is well known.  Most church foundation in this period took place in the cities and smaller towns.  Estate churches were known but even monasticism was predominantly (not exclusively) an urban phenomenon.  Bishops fought hard (if not always very successfully) to preserve their prerogatives in the areas of preaching, baptism and so on.  The overwhelming majority of Christian cults were focused upon the cities, dominated by the bishops.  Rural cults, such as that of Saint Julian of Brioude were still intimately connected to the bishops and their cities (in this case Clermont).  Thus it is unsurprising that, outside the royal court/s, cities were the principal focus of politics.  Kings strove to maintain their ability to control these spaces, or their bishops.  Remember the famous complaint attributed (albeit problematically) to Chilperic I by Gregory of Tours, that all authority had passed to the bishops in their cities.43  This seems true of all formerly imperial areas.  Britain is usually cited as an exception but it is worth noting that we suffer from an absolute dearth of relevant evidence.  Roman cities could still have served as the foci for politics.  Canterbury, for example, appears to have been a royal centre at the end of the sixth century and York is attested in a similar role a generation or so later.  The high-status occupation of the baths basilica at Wroxeter in the post-imperial era hints at similar processes.   In the non-urbanised areas beyond the former limes it is difficult to draw any conclusions.  Comparing the distribution and nature of fortified centres north of the Antonine Wall, however, where fortified centres occupied are fewer and larger at first and then, around 600 become more numerous but smaller, possibly suggests that politics were largely enacted at the major centres of large kingdoms.  

A radical change in this pattern occurs around 600.  In various areas of the north-west, high-status rural sites appear.  Many of these focus on large halls, the political nature of which is well known from all sorts of early medieval literature.  More importantly, the seventh century, across the west, is the great moment of the foundation of rural churches and monasteries – from Ireland, via England and Francia, to Spain and Italy.  This is closely bound up with the processes we have encountered already, not least the creation of immunities and the increasing security of control over land.  The use of monastic foundations to cement local power and authority, to evade the demands of custom and the law, is attested all over Christian western Europe.  As is well known, familial rural monasteries became the political nodes of seventh-century Francia.44  The royal courts, naturally, remained crucial foci for political action and towns continued to play a role; indeed in the north-west this was a period which saw them begin to revive after perhaps three centuries of stagnation and decline.45  The extent to which they were political rather than economic foci might, however, be questioned.  The earliest northern Gallic charters do not suggest that towns were commonly used for the sorts of gathering that discussed transactions like land grants and so on.  For these, rural churches and monasteries or the centres of estates were more common, and that is even true of royal charters.  That is of true of England too, though the lack of earlier evidence makes it impossible to assess the extent to which this represented a change.  One might, then, suggest that, spatially at least, the circuits of local power ran through networks that were based upon the private – local aristocratic families, their lands, churches and other foundations – more than upon the public, administrative centres of the preceding era.

Identity and subjectivisation

It is absolutely crucial to consider the state’s role (if it had one) in the formation of social and political subjects.  Were identities related to, and formed by, a relationship with the state?  Two key areas are gender and ethnicity.


The Roman Empire had been a heavily gendered edifice.46  The very concept of masculinity had been, via its oppositions to barbarism as well as to the feminine, tied to the notion of being Roman.  What made a man superior to woman (or animal or barbarian) was also what made Roman government superior to that of the nations round-about.  The model of civic masculinity was, at least at the level of the social élites, tied into participation in government.  The idea that one was not suitable to govern also implied an inability to govern oneself and family (and vice versa) and called one’s masculinity into question.  I have argued that in the fourth century a rival, ‘martial’ model emerged in the Roman army, often in self-conscious opposition to traditional civic masculinity, stressing ferocity and other normally un-Roman characteristics.  What, however, legitimised and indeed permitted this model was its connection with the imperial government and especially the emperor.47  This has a close relationship with ideas of ethnicity in the immediately post-imperial era, to which I shall return in a moment.  The martial model steadily gained over the civic from the fifth century onwards but seems to have decisively won out – apparently quite suddenly – in the decades around 600.  

By the seventh century, outside the church, the warrior was the only real lifestyle choice open to the western aristocratic male.  I suspect that that comparatively sudden swing stemmed from the end of the possibility of relating both models to an involvement in a Roman (or sub-Roman) state, the situation that had held the two in relationship (or a dynamic tension) to each other.  I’ve previously discussed sixth-century gender as a curious moment wherein there were two poles of gendered social organisation arranged with reference to a shared, vanishing centre.48 The seventh sees (in my view) gendered restructured around a single masculine with femininity discussed with reference to its proximity to or distance from that.  Stress appears to be laid on male heads of families, a conclusion possibly supported by material cultural change as well as in the documentary record.  [An important variation here, however, might be suggested by some changes in later seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burials, with an emphasis on lavishly furnished female graves.]  It seems to me that the construction of masculinity no longer had any relationship to a function, position in or relationship to any particular political unit.  This point might be underlined with reference to the development of ethnic identity.


There was a well-known functional aspect to late Roman and immediately post-imperial ethnic identity, as already alluded to.  Romans paid tax and staffed the civil bureaucracy and Church; barbarians served in the army.  This can be seen clearly in sixth-century naming practices.49  The point underlines the linkage of identity to a place or role within the functioning of the state and indeed the construction of masculinity, as in the immediately post-imperial era, references to barbarian ethnic identities in relation to women seem very few.50  

There were numerous reasons for the spread of non-Roman identity in the later sixth century: legal privilege, tax exemption, and so on.  I suspect, too, that after the wars of Justinian Roman identity might have lost much of its political value.51  This is associated with the demise of the civic model of masculinity.  By the time that Lex Ribvaria was issued, all Romani had to have a Ripuarian (Frankish) freeman speak for them at law.  The category had gone from being a parallel free society to being a class of the semi-free.52  By the seventh century this sort of ethnic change was general in the west, as mentioned already.53

This change was closely linked to that in the raising of armies, which could no longer be carried out practically on the basis of barbarian identity.54  As noted, the process now took place ‘vertically’ down chains of dependence.  This itself meant that the role of military service in subject-formation was now frequently related to ties of personal dependence or allegiance rather than a role in the state.  I suspect that change in ethnicity worked simultaneously in opposing ways.  On the one hand, non-Roman identity was now so widespread among the free population that it could no longer serve to delineate successfully a particular socio-political group with a particular relationship to the government of the realm.  On the other, presumably connected to the fact that it was now shared by women and children and clearly inherited rather than achieved (as it might have been earlier), it was now personal, so that an individual (of a particular status at least) was able to claim the personality of the law.55  There was thus no necessary relationship between ethnicity and the polity or a function within it.  [All this – and much else – would be very different in eighth-century Lombard Italy but as I said earlier, the grounds for back-projecting such a picture to the early seventh or late sixth centuries are slim, and the eighth-century Lombard kingdom – state? – might have been a comparatively recent development.]

The one area where there was no such change (as yet) was southern Gaul, Aquitaine.  Yet that area may reveal what seem to be more general tendencies.  The sixth-century Merovingian state had operated in such a way that regional élites travelled to the north of Gaul to the courts of the Merovingian kings.  The kings themselves, although they travelled around, did so within a comparatively tight circuit (certainly by comparison with their better documented eighth- and ninth-century Carolingian successors) in the Paris basin.  They rarely strayed beyond this, with the exception of Guntramn of Burgundy’s occasional forays in the northern Rhone valley and Austrasian kings’ visits to the Rhine.  Seventh-century Frankish politics show an important shift, as regional élites increasingly demand a more locally-present ruler.  This is not the case in Spain, importantly, although developments in Septimania later in the century might have had analogous roots and the large, evidently semi-autonomous region controlled by Tudmir in the early eighth century could point a similar way.56  It is possible that similar tendencies might have lain behind the appearance of smaller realms in England57 and the drift out of effective Frankish hegemony of the regions right of the Rhine.  A similar evolution possibly took place in northern Britain.58

The political community

Thus, all in all it seems to me that the political had retreated from the public sphere of the state to the private sphere of the interaction of aristocratic families and their adherents.  This is not in any way to deny the fact that this interaction was still played out for the control of, and actions legitimised by a connection with, the royal court.  This ensured that the seventh-century kingdom continued to be a coherent structure.  Yet that kingdom seems not to be a political community, or it is not the working out of community.  Identity appears centred upon family and upon features unconnected with the realm: ethnicity, perhaps, and religion.  It may be this that enhanced the attempts to create community through marriage alliances.  Even here, though, the great aristocratic clans beloved of earlier generations of historians seem to be historiographical creations rather than necessarily effective political structures.  Contingency is the watchword of a seventh-century politics dominated by shifting alliances of aristocratic groups.  In Francia and elsewhere, the political community is ‘unworked’ in Nancy’s terms.  There is no over-riding shared identity that shapes it, or which it produces.  This may even be true in Spain, and marked by the on-going (yet ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to clothe the kingship in Christian and other legitimising ritual.  Deconstruction of the notion of community thus offers us a way of comparing developments in different areas without being side-tracked by ideas of coercion, taxation and so on.

Interpretation and conclusion

In considering what produced these shifts, my thinking has come to converge upon the importance of the wars of the mid-sixth century, Justinian’s ideology of reconquest and the fall-out from that for westerners.  There’s no space to discuss this in detail, but – in brief – one of the most important effects of Justinian’s wars was surely to bring home to anyone in the west that they no longer lived in the Roman Empire.  The emperor had made it very clear that their lands had been lost to the Empire and needed reconquering, and had waged long, bloody, destructive warfare in an attempt to do so.  The bases of all sorts of identities and authority – centuries-old patterns of thought based around traditional, Roman sources of power, ideology, and behaviour – were cut away, potentially projecting the West into a sort of semiological hyperspace.  It is no coincidence that – as has long been known – the late sixth and seventh century saw an important move from traditional classical to biblical, especially Old Testament exemplars.59  That in turn underpins all sorts of other changes, encompassed in my discussion.  For people accustomed, after three hundred years or more, to the idea that the Roman Empire was commensurate with the sixth age, the awareness of living after Rome understandably produced considerable anxieties.  This conjuncture of circumstances produced, or enabled, a springing apart of old identities and communities and their reconfiguring in forms that may have been entirely contingent and expected only to be short-lived, but which turned out to be a blueprint for medieval politics.


1 The various volumes of the Transformation of the Roman World project, published by Brill in the late 1990s and early 2000s were diverse in approach but it’s not unfair to say that many contributions advocated this sort of continuity approach.  See also, A.M. Cameron, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity.

2 Cp. P.J. Fouracre, Francia in the Age of Charles Martel.

3 Here there may be some points of contact with J.J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire.

4 M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.37.

5 Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.390.

6 J. Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, pp.32-33

7 C.J. Wickham, The Framing the Early Middle Ages

8 S. Reynolds, ‘The historiography of the medieval state’, in M. Bentley (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Historiography.

9 S. Airlie & W. Pohl (ed.) Staat im frühen Mittelalter.

10 E.g., above all, the oeuvre of Janet L. Nelson, e.g. Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe; ead., The Frankish World.

11 I am grateful to Dr Jonathan Jarrett for advice on this point.

12 For critique of the zero sum model see T. Reuter & C.J. Wickham, ‘Introduction’ in W. Davies & P.J. Fouracre (ed), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages.

13 E.g.. the chapters by S.T. Loseby & S. Lebeq in P. Fouracre (ed.) The New Cambridge Medieval History 1.

14 This point is discussed further at the end of this essay.

15 See below, n.29.

16 See, e.g. C.J. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages.

17 W. Goffart, ‘Old and new in Merovingian taxation’, Past and Present 1982; cp. id. ‘Frankish military duty and the fate of Roman taxation’ EME 2008.

18 B. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space. Power, Restraint and Privileges of Immunity in Early Medieval Europe (Manchester, 1999).

19 Paul, HL, 2.32

20 Details of the changes in military organisation in this period can be found in G. Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003); I would now modify the account in some details.

21 multitudine primatum et agminum satellitum plurimorum; Fred. Cont., 24

22 D. Pérez Sánchez, El Ejército en la Sociedad Visigoda (Salamanca, 1989); R. Abels Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1988).

23 Visigothic Law 2.2.2, 2.2.9 both issued by Chindasvinth.

24 Lex Ribvaria 33.1

25 Wickham, Framing of the Early Middle Ages, is the most recent and sophisticated attempt to argue for the existence of a wealthy and independent Frankish aristocracy before the seventh century.  For the unreferenced draft of an article attempting to counter Wickham’s argument see: http://600transformer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/officers-or-gentlemen-frankish.html (with links to 3 subsequent instalments).  A problem with Wickham’s argument is that he does not take into account the lack of wealth and independence of the late Roman aristocracy in the region: http://600transformer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/genesis-of-frankish-aristocracy-part-1.html (another unreferenced draft; again there are 3 subsequent parts, linked from the first).

26 G. Halsall, Settlement and Social Organisation. The Merovingian Region of Metz (Cambridge 1995), ch.9.

27 G. Halsall, ‘From Roman fundus to Carolingian Grand Domaine: crucial ruptures between late antiquity and the middle ages.’ Revue Belge de Philologie at d’Histoire 90 (2012), pp.273-98. See also G. Halsall, ‘Villas, territories and communities in Merovingian northern Gaul’ in People and Space in the Middle Ages, 300-1300, ed. W. Davies, G. Halsall & A. Reynolds (Turnhout 2006), pp.209-31.

28 Some of the issues discussed here, not least the problems with the usually adopted thesis of kingdom formation, can be found in my recent (semi-academic) volume Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (Oxford, 2013).

29 G. Halsall, ‘Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire’.  The Mediaeval Journal 2.2 (2012), pp.1-25.  See also Worlds of Arthur; http://600transformer.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/woad-less-travelled-archaeology-of.html Cp., for the currently accepted view, S. Driscoll, ‘Power and authority in early historic Scotland: Pictish symbol stones and other documents’, in State and Society: The Emergence and Development of Social Hierarchy and Political Centralization, ed. Gledhill, J., Bender, B., & Larsen, M.T., (London 1988), pp.215-36.

30 E. H.C. Mytum, The Origins of Early Christian Ireland (London, 1992) for description.

31 Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages.

32 See, e.g., the oeuvre of A. Chavarría Arnau.

33 E.g. G. Halsall, Settlement and Social Organisation.

35 A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks

37 M.J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, 1550-1650 (Cambridge 2000), ch.1 [I am enormously grateful to my student Laura Salvage for pointing me at this.].  For a view of the mainland European situation, stressing the dynamics from above and below of the state penetrating local society and which has been influential in the development of my thinking, see J. Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650. Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London, 2000); id., War and the State in early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States, 1500-1650 (London, 2002).

38 The most serious example is M.J. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages, whose argument is belied at every turn by basic factual errors and egregious misreadings of documents.  For (believe me!) mild critique, see Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp.78-81 and references.

39 See, e.g., the discussion of the state in R. Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (2008).

40 L. Althusser, On Ideology

41 J. Rancière, La Haine de la Démocratie

42 J.L. Nancy, La Communauté Désoeuvrée (trans. The Inoperative Community (Minnesota, 1991); C. Bailly & J.L. Nancy, La Comparution .

43 Gregory, Histories 6.46.

44 See, for example, R. Gerberding, The Liber Historiae Francorum and the Rise of the Carolingians (Oxford, 1987).

45 There is a long bibliography of studies of western urban and regeneration, e.g.: G. Brogiolo & B. Ward-Perkins (ed.), The Idea and the Ideal of the Town between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 1999); G. Brogiolo, N. Christie & N. Gauthier (ed.), Towns and their territories between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 2000); N. Christie & S.T. Loseby, (ed.) Towns in Transition: Urban Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Aldershot, 1996); R. Hodges & B. Hobley, The Rebirth of Towns in the West, AD 700-1050 (CBA: London); 

46 J.M.H. Smith, ‘Did women have a transformation of the Roman world?, Gender and History; G. Halsall, ‘Gender and the end of empire’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

47 A point thoroughly and convincingly discussed in the work of M. Kulikowsky. E.g. Rome’s Gothic Wars From the Third Century to Alaric (Cambridge, 2006)

48 Again I can only offer a reference to a preliminary draft:  http://600transformer.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/classical-gender-in-deconstruction.html

49 A famous example is the brother of Bishop Nicetius of Lyon, who bore the name Gundulf.  Gundulf was a domesticus and later a duke at the Austrasian Frankish court and presumably took (or rather added) this name on going into secular service just as his great-nephew, Gregory of Tours, added the name Gregory upon entering the church.

50 G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (Cambridge 2007), pp.485-7.  Mark Handley has drawn my attention to a couple more barbara on inscriptions since then but not enough to really change the picture.

51 See further, below in the conclusion.

52 Lex Ribvaria.

53 This makes me think that the references to the Welsh as a subordinate population in the early 8th century Laws of Ine of Wessex might similarly be the outcome of a longer process with a more important shift around 600 and thus have no necessary implication for the fifth and sixth centuries, as is often supposed.

54 I have added to the discussion of this in Warfare and Society in my chapter for the forthcoming Cambridge History of War, ed. A. Curry.  This volume has been forthcoming for some time, however, and I am unsure what its current status is.

55 E.g. Lex Ribv.

56 R. Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain (Oxford, 1989) esp. pp.42, 149, 202-3.

57 Again, following the hypothesis outlined in Worlds of Arthur, ch.11.

58 See above, n.29.

59 This can be seen no more clearly than in the difference between Gregory of Tours’ Clovis and the Clovis who emerges from documents of his own time.  Though this is not the conclusion drawn, it is thoroughly illustrated by W.M. Daley, 'Clovis: How barbaric, how pagan?' Speculum 69 (1994):619-64.