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Gender in the Merovingian World

Friday, 15 May 2015

Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities

[This is the paper I gave yesterday at Kalamazoo, in what turned out to be a very successful and (given there were a lot of clashes) gratifyingly well-attended session.  Thanks to Laurent Cases for inviting me and to Michael Kulikowski and Stefan Esders for their papers, with which I thought this meshed quite well.]

This experimental paper looks at political community.  Comparing the Roman Empire with the seventh-century Frankish kingdom it considers the link between subject-formation and membership of a polity.  The initial thesis was that a fundamental link between subjectivity and the political community would increase a polity’s resilience in the face of crisis.  Whether this is the case remains to be seen but the comparison of Roman and Frankish polities may lead to some interesting suggestions.  Finally, I will draw on this to meditate briefly on how we might rethink community in the present.

Fundamentally, an identity has no fixed and stable meaning present in and to itself.  The failure to appreciate this vitiates all work treating early medieval ethnicities (like the Gothic) as unchanging monoliths. It’s difficult to see how such views could ever have gained any traction had history paid attention to philosophy. As categories into which the world is divided, identities are signs (or complexes of signs) and function, as such, as combinations of signifier and signified.  One implication of this is that they can only be located on endless chains of signifiers, each sign bearing the trace of all the signifiers and signifieds to which it’s linked. But although signified may be linked to signifier in the realm of the Symbolic, there is no fixity about what, say, ‘Goth’ may mean in the Imaginary – the complex of ideals, identifications and differences that make up the ideal ‘Goth’. That changes contingently, through time and space.  Furthermore there can be no absolute guarantee that  someone’s understanding of the signified ‘Goth’ is precisely the same as anyone else’s.  Political communities do attempt to limit this fluidity.  In the UK, efforts to fix a signified to the signifier are manifest in periodic hand-wringing about what it might mean to be British or, especially, English, or in confident, ill-informed proclamations on the subject by nationalists.

Identities are never immanent, but manifested by various forms of what Butler termed citation, and especially performance. Here is where we consider subject-formation.  As a child enters the world of language, she learns what the society into which she’s born considers to be correct behaviour.  In some thinking, adopting Bourdieu’s ideas, this point has been employed to allow a form of primordialism to re-enter the discussion of ethnicity by the back door.  This approach nonetheless ultimately fails to rescue the concept of unchanging, primordial ethnicity. It assumes that such ideals as are manifest in, in Bourdieu’s terms, habitus and doxa can be transmitted in static form.  More importantly, it equates habitus with ethnicity.  That is the key relationship I will explore.  My contention is that this is less problematically the case in the Roman than in the later Merovingian example.

The crucial point concerns the linkage between correct performance of masculinity (or femininity) and Romanness.  For now, we can bracket the sometimes-alleged distinction between Romanness and ethnicity.  Correct conduct, as a man, defined the core of legitimate political behaviour.  To behave as a man – a Ro-man – was to be capable of involvement in the Roman imperial body politic. Appropriate  behaviour could bring a barbarian so closely within imperial structures as to efface any trace of non-Roman origin.  As Michael Kulikowski has cogently argued, furthermore, the deliberate performance of non-Romanness, when excluded from government, became an established strategy within political dialogue.  This in no way challenged the link between legitimacy and Romanness.

This can be explained by considering the young Roman’s socialisation, which, as is well-known, involved induction into the ideals of correct civilised, masculine behaviour: reason, moderation, the control of emotions and bodily urges, and so on.  Performing these traits manifested  suitability for political office.  They also, as is equally well-known, demonstrated correct leadership of a family and control over women, children and dependents.  The male Roman’s ego-ideal was central to involvement in the sex-gender system, and both were inextricably tied up with membership of the imperial polity.

One could not, therefore, turn one’s back on Romanness without calling into question aspects of identity that enabled local leadership and even participation in marriage politics.  This goes far towards explaining how the Empire endured the so-called Third-Century Crisis.  The absence of a real alternative meant – briefly – competing empires but no fundamental challenge to Romanitas’ monopoly of legitimate political expression.

When Laurent and I first discussed this session, I believed that the third- and fifth-century situations were fundamentally different; I still thought that the key explanandum of the fifth century was the demise of the Western Empire, which had survived the third century.  I wanted to explain the divergent outcomes of the two critical periods.  Having been working on the sixth century, I now think those situations were rather more similar than I imagined.

There were nonetheless important differences. A rival, martial form of Roman masculinity, playing with traditional Roman ethnographic ideas to stress non-Romanness, emerged in the post-Tetrarchic army.  The fundamental point remained, though, that, like the performance of an anti-Roman stance discussed by Kulikowski, even this remained nested within standard Roman world-views and, as – again – Kulikowski has demonstrated, only underlined the importance of a link with the Emperor in ensuring the legitimacy of claims to Romanness.  Nonetheless, as I have argued before, martial masculinity with its citation of barbarisms, and the equally performed anti-Roman stance in political dialogue, provided resources which gave fifth-century political history a different texture.

Third-century polities opposed to the nominally legitimate emperor at, in theory, Rome either took the form of rival empires or attempts to usurp the ‘legitimate’ title.  Either way, as for dmuch of the fourth century, the lesson was evidently that rival empires governed by different dynasties would inevitably face off for control of the whole.  Perhaps this dynamic goes all the way back to the Republic’s death-throes.  It seems to have been clear by 425 that third-century tactics no longer worked and politics took on a subtly different aspect.  In particular, polities outside the Emperor’s sphere could establish a different legitimacy as ‘barbarian’ kingdoms.  The mistake is to assume that these realms constituted the political aims of non-Roman peoples.  This is to fall victim to two teleological fallacies: one of intention – that what eventuated was what people wanted – and the fallacy that what turned out to work was what was best.  As I have said before, kingdoms are for losers.  The leaders of all the barbarian kingdoms or, better, the regionally-focused Romano-barbarian factions, wanted to control the centre.  Kingdoms were a temporary expedient: a means of legitimate government and dialogue, faute de mieux.  The problem was that, after the Theodosian dynasty’s extinction, no faction was able to subdue the others.  When eventually even the Italian faction was declared to be in the political cold and so took the ‘kingdom’ route, the whole pars occidentis found itself in an indecisive face-off between different political units.  By way of analogy, imagine that neither Marc-Anthony, nor Octavian, nor Lepidus was able to eliminate either of the other Triumvirs and so politics settled down into regionally-based Republican successor states.

This constituted only (to modify Piganiol once more ) a ‘first death’ of the Roman Empire: in the order of the Symbolic.  In the order of the Imaginary, the Empire lived on until its ‘second death’, during Justinian’s wars of reconquest. I can find no evidence that between c.475 and c.525 westerners believed that the traumatic and unprecedented non-existence of a western Empire, which they certainly noticed, or the stalemate between the kingdoms, constituted a permanent state of affairs.  I would even suggest that the situation emerging c.510, in which Theoderic and Clovis, both of whom allowed themselves to be called augustus, were evidently squaring up to each other, might have been perceived simply as the next round in the Gallic-Italian factional rivalry for control of the West.  The ongoing importance of by now quite traditional Roman political discourse and bases of legitimacy meant that the West maintained a significant existence as a political unit – in the Imaginary – long after its evident dissolution.

The ideological and military offensives of Justin I and Justinian ended this situation.  They involved the strident proclamation of the West’s loss to barbarians and exclusion from the Empire.  For the first time, therefore, an Emperor could unproblematically acknowledge barbarian control of formerly imperial territory, as when Justinian recognised Theudebert’s rule over Provence during the Gothic Wars.

The political options available around 400 allowed the Empire to endure the fifth-century crisis in ways that have some analogies with but also certain differences from its survival of its third-century problems.  However, that situation also eventually permitted the rug to be cut from beneath old expressions of legitimacy.  This caused a profound crisis: the end of the Roman world.

It’s clear that by this time, the later sixth century, the Merovingian family had created a monopoly over legitimate rulership, such as eluded all other post-imperial dynasties. I suggest, however, that one root of the earlier Merovingian state’s cohesion was the continued significance – in subject-formation and socialisation – of behavioural ideals still ultimately underpinned by relationship to the Roman Empire; that – in however spectral a form – the figure of the Emperor still bound civic Roman and martial barbarian identities into a whole.

The Justinianic wars’ effects were visible in the rapid evaporation of a meaningful Roman civic identity within the Merovingian realms.  It even appears to have become a derogatory term for ‘southerner’. Seventh-century Frankish leaders made various proclamations of political community but I think that historians have seriously overestimated the extent to which their declarations described – or could describe – a reality.  We must reconsider how the later Merovingian kingdom functioned and what, if any, sort of political community it constituted.

I will have to be telegraphic.  No seventh-century linkage between subjectification and socialisation and the polity existed. If one can identify attempts to perform a martial Frankish identity, one must remember that that ethnic identity was not coextensive with the kingdom. Several other ethnicities could claim legal recognition in seventh-century law, and the Frankish army’s multi-ethnic character is described by Fredegar in ways that seem subtly different from Gregory of Tours’ accounts.  If the triumph of the martial model of secular masculinity produced a common aristocratic identity it was not one intimately connected to membership of the Frankish polity.

Christian behaviour, the other basis of the ego-ideal, can claim no more linkage with the Merovingian kingdom.  There were, however, ways in which the different role of religion in politics from c.600 undermined old forms of community.  Especially interesting in subject-formation is the introduction of confession and private penance.  This form of the narration of the self underlines the importance of a Christian ego-ideal, not specifically connected to a polity; it also, as Foucault said, marks a change from public forms of giving an account of oneself, in which communal behavioural ideals might play a part.

Monastic developments, including aristocratic sponsorship of new types of rural monastery, fostered the linkage of Christian ideals with family identities, also strengthened at this time, but which equally bear no connection with the Frankish kingdom as such.  If kingship was becoming a ministry, as one can suggest from Guntramn’s reign onwards, with a king responsible for the good Christian behaviour of his subjects, that still did not somehow specifically link the latter to the former.

Connected to this, one can identify a privatisation of political space.  Many monasteries – and at least some aristocrats - were granted immunities, removing them from the usual ecclesiastical hierarchy and protecting them from governmental imposts like taxation and military service.  Royal officers could not enter these zones to collect such revenues or collect fines. The immunities represent small holes appearing in the coverage of the kingdom’s ability to penetrate local politics.  Even if the immunity grant worked, as patronage, to bind the recipient into the kingdom’s government, as has plausibly been argued, the basic fact remained.  Other holes appearing in the kingdom’s political space are revealed by a shift in politics’ focus away from the public administrative nodes – cities and small towns – to royal and aristocratic monasteries and estate centres.  The imperial or royal court had always been a focus of activity but it seems now to be more rural in its location and – functionally – to seem like a variant on the usual, privatised foci of political behaviour.

Without the Empire’s social foundations of political community, therefore, the effort expended on seventh-century proclamations of consensus seem to me to reflect contingent factional claims for legitimacy: not claims, as in the Roman situation, to lead the community, legitimately, but to be the community.  Early medieval historians’ obsession with reifying consensus has meant that the insidious nature of this vocabulary and of the work it does – then as now – has not been duly acknowledged. These statements define who is in, for sure, but also who is out.  Those who are excluded are held to have withdrawn themselves from the community, depicted as refusing consensus.  This was the inevitable correlate of civil war for control of the palace and of Frankishness.

We must not overstate the differences.  Controlling the royal court exerted a powerful attraction, ensuring the realm’s continuing existence as a political arena, in the Imaginary. Exclusion could find regional and ethnic expression, but the kingdom’s poly-ethnic nature meant that a link to the Merovingian king was still important in relating to other groups.  Peripheral ethnic groups did not therefore become kingdoms, even if they may have been to all intents and purposes independent of royal rule.  This led to very fluid boundaries, that in turn drew out Carolingian military campaigning
In the 730s-740s the Merovingian kingdom functioned without a king for six years.  This illustrates the extent to which it functioned in the Imaginary but also the – by this date – obsolescence of the Merovingians themselves. Without stronger bases, the integrative forces weakened over time.  The revived kingdom of the Carolingians needed new bases for community.

So: a few unsurprising conclusions and the promised meditation.  The close linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the Roman polity gave the Empire remarkable resilience in the face of political crisis and even fragmentation.  It facilitated its effective functioning as a state, by anyone’s definition. The late Merovingian kingdom’s longevity and coherence are striking but there is no doubt that it was less cohesive than even the fifth-century Empire. Nor, I think, more controversially, is it helpful to classify that realm as a state, unlike its earlier precursor.  The lack of linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the polity makes a crucial difference.

None of that may be especially surprising, and perhaps not even very interesting.  What interests me more is using this as a springboard for thinking community and its possibilities in the present.  There is much discussion of integration in current European politics, especially as regards immigrants and above all Muslim immigrants. But into what assimilation is sought remains, at best, ill-defined – a buzz-word in dog-whistle politics, contingent and inconsistent when probed.  If, as I believe it should be, history provides a means of challenging the accepted bounds of the natural or the possible, then the discussion of late antique political community provides some interesting parameters.

The current rhetoric of assimilation and integration, of subscription to norms, the disagreement and conflict over what those norms might be, seems to me problematic and indeed dangerous.  For, just as in the Frankish case, these notions of community are in fact predicated upon exclusion and intolerance. In this case there is no recognition of dissent within the community.  Although politically more coherent and resilient, and much more successful in, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s term, ‘working’ a community, one can ask whether the Roman model is ultimately much better.  For, although the models of behaviour held to underpin the Romanness of the community allowed the inclusion of outsiders, this was based upon sometimes vicious intolerance.  Again it has its modern parallels in the discourse on integration, when we hear calls for immigrants to adopt western ways.  We will tolerate you, they (like the Romans) say, as long as you promise to be like us.  That, as many have said, is not toleration.

In her 2007 book The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott talks of the pressing need to create forms of community that accept difference. The Roman-Frankish comparison might help us think this further.  On the one hand, as in the Roman case, community should be linked to engagement in its structures.  It should, like the Merovingian, lack a hegemonic identity, but unlike the Merovingian, not strive to create one. Within a common legal framework it would nevertheless have a meaningful existence in the Symbolic. In Nancy’s terms, an ‘unworked’ community hesitates permanently at the moment of mutual recognition, within the Hegelian Aufhebung, recognising difference within community but without seeking to remove it. Meditating on the diversities of the past to help us push the bounds of the possible in the present may be one way of allowing History to face up to its most important humanist responsibilities.

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