Featured post

Gender in the Merovingian World

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Ethnic Transformations of the Year 600 (A preliminary sketch): Part 1

["Not talkin' 'bout the roots in the name/ talkin' 'bout the roots in the man', sang Lamont Dozier (and, later and more famously, Odyssey). When I started working on the 'Transformations of the Year 600', I thought that there would be little or nothing to say about ethnicity, unlike in its predecessor, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, where it is an important element of the analysis.  This was because I accepted the view, which seems general, that that was, if not 'the' period of ethnogenesis, certainly a period when ethnic identity was very important in political transformation.  Now I am wondering whether this was in fact the case.  Thinking about the nature of post-imperial polities either side of 600, and the processes of subjectification, made me reconsider this.  Here are my current, very preliminary thoughts on this issue.  These, clearly, deal only with the Frankish kingdom.  Whether things might be different in the Visigothic, Lombard or Anglo-Saxon realms remains to be seen.]


‘It wearies me to record the diverse civil wars that beset the people and kingdom of the Franks [francorum gentem et regnum]...’[1]

One of the biggest areas of research in early medieval history in recent decades has been the study of ethnicity and its role in the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire.  Indeed Walter Goffart, an outspoken opponent of the ‘ethnogenesis’ approach, begins one book with a statement that the Roman Empire ran into a ‘wave of ethnicity’ in Late Antiquity.[2]  The often vitriolic debate has overwhelmingly concerned the period between the late fourth and the sixth centuries, that of the ‘fall of the Roman Empire’; the period covered by the present book has featured very much less prominently except, perhaps, in discussions of the Lombards and Avars.  In this chapter, however, I will suggest that in fact it was precisely in the decades around 600 that ethnic identity really came to the fore as a politically significant factor. 

I have offered a fairly full discussion of the nature of ethnicity before[3]but it will be helpful to offer a résumé of the conclusions reached there. There is no single feature that can be used to define an ethnicity, other than the belief in one’s membership of a group and in the distinctiveness of that group.  Ethnicity is subjective, multi-layered (one can have more than one level of identity that functions in an ‘ethnic’ way), performative (ethnic identity is not immanent but is activated by performance), situational (it, or certain levels of an actor’s ethnicity, is performed in certain situations) and dynamic (what an ethnic identity means, or the effects achieved in its performance, change through time). The principal means by which I would modify this view today would be in which the identity being performed is seen.  In the 2007 book there is insufficient theorisation of what is meant by an ‘identity’, although this flaw is very common across the innumerable studies of identity in early medieval history.[4]  It seems too strongly implied that the identity, however mutable, is some sort of self-present entity or at least a set of unproblematically, mutually-understood roles and images.  The point to be stressed though is that any identity is a mental image of an ideal, comprised not only of what the social actor sees as its advantages and disadvantages but also what they perceive to be others’ expectations of the correct performance of the identity.  That mental image will of course constantly be changing as a result of the myriad ongoing performances of social interactions between people of particular identities.  The mental ideal image associated with the identity can, furthermore, never be attained but is always striven towards.  There is also no guarantee that that image, as perceived by one actor, will correspond exactly to that imagined by other parties in the interaction.  That gives the decision to perform a particular identity in a social interaction some of the characteristics of a wager rather than something of which the outcome can be entirely predicted in terms of the relative prestige or privilege associated with particular identities.

In the fifth and early sixth centuries it can be argued that ethnic identity was particularly fluid and multi-layered.  This should not be assumed to mean that one could pick and choose identities at will.  The ethnic shifts that can be observed are best explained in terms of the acquisition, and reordering through time, of new identities within the ethnic field.  Thus a provincial Roman (and one must remember that ‘Roman’ identity was itself multi-layered, with regional and various civitasidentities beneath the general ’Roman’ heading) might acquire a new, ‘barbarian’ ethnicity, such as Goth or Frank, related to various activities or functions within the realm.  Over time that identity might come to be stressed more than the others, until it was his primary means of identification.  There can be no doubt that politics in this period could be seen as the interaction of ethnic identities. 

That said, however, ethnicities at that time appear very often to have been functional.  Famously, for example, barbarian ethnic identities were associated with the military, across the west, while the ‘Roman’ identity was linked more heavily to educational culture, to civic administrative roles, to the Church, and so on.  The implication of this is that ethnicity remained ‘nested’ within and authorised by a particular conception of the Roman or post-imperial state.  What shaped the social role of, for example, Gothic identity was the perception of the military function of the Goths.  This can be seen very clearly in the writings of Cassiodorus and the ‘civilitas’ ideology to which he gave voice.  Goths defended the realm, allowing Romans to maintain their traditional civilised way of life, which included serving in the administrative offices of the kingdom.  The two identities were largely defined by their interrelationship within that structure and any power associated with them was ultimately legitimated by a link to the king.  In many regards, this simply continued the late Roman distinction between the civil and military arms of imperial service.  None of this denies that the relationship between such ethnic identities was dynamic and that the relative standing of each was subject to change.  This was one factor that led to particular social actors adopting other identities.

Andrew Gillett has argued that ethnicity was not politicised in the immediately post-imperial period.[5]  This immediately, of course, begs the question of what is meant by ‘politicised’.  Gillett appears to take the political to mean the level of political units and their leaders, which is too restrictive an interpretation.  Clearly, within any kingdom the interplay of ethnic identities was political.  Nonetheless, at that high level of politics, his argument is forceful.  Terms that associated royal titles or realms with people, like those that appear in the epigram from Gregory of Tours with which this chapter opened, do seem to be rare before the late sixth century.  The preceding discussion perhaps suggests why this was.  The realm itself was not associated with a single dominant ethnicity or ethnic group and the ruler was the ruler of all groups within a territory.  As we have just seen, it was the overarching structure of the territory or state and its government and ruler that legitimised, and created a frame for, the performance of ethnic identities. 

The place of ethnic identity in society and politics may, however, have changed in the later sixth century.  Two documentary references might give us a way into examining this.  The first comes in Fredegar’s Chronicle (IV.78), describing a punitive campaign launched in 636/7 by the Franks against the Basques.  King Dagobert sent an army led by ten dukes: ‘Arinbert, Amalgar, Leudebert, Wandalmar, Wandelbert, Ermen, Barontus, Chairard ex genere francorum, Chramnelen ex genere romano [sic], Willibad the patrician genere burgundionum, Aighyna genere saxsonum [sic]’ and many other counts. 

The second comes from Ripuarian Law.  Lex Ribvaria’s date is difficult to establish with any precision; it lacks an identifying prologue and the manuscripts, as is so often the case, are later than its presumed date of issue.  Nonetheless, the communis opinio, based on cross-reference from the prologues to the late Alamannic and Bavarian codes, seems to be that it was issued in the reign of Dagobert.  Whether the promulgation of the law would date to the beginning of his sole rule (629) or, as I have proposed before, associated with the council of Clichy (626) and the defusing of tensions between Dagobert and his father, is uncertain.  We might nevertheless accept an early seventh-century date.  The law might then belong to more or less the same time as the Basque campaign described by Fredegar.  Clause 40 of the law sets out the penalties to be paid if a Ripuarian Frank kills another freeman of varying ethnic identities: Frank, Burgundian, Roman, Alaman, Frisian, Bavarian and Saxon are listed.  More significantly for the development and historiography of early medieval law, clause 35 says that someone of Ripuarian, Frankish, Burgundian, Alamannic ‘or whatever other’ origin can be tried by the law of the place (or of the people into which) they were born.  This is the first reference to the much discussed ‘personality of the law’ in the Merovingian world.

The two texts appear to suggest that different ethnic identities were important within the ‘kingdom of the Franks’.  The analysis, however, may require us to look at the two levels of kingship within the Merovingian world: the regional Teilreiche and the broader regnum francorum made up of all of the different kingdoms and occasionally unified under a single ruler (such as Chlothar I at the very start of our period or his grandson Chlothar II between 613 and 621). If we start with the lower of these two levels, represented by Ripuarian Law, it is difficult to imagine any ordinary freeman making effective a claim to a non-Ripuarian Frankish identity and thus to be tried by the law of his own people in a typical Frankish rural mallus or court.  The title guaranteeing the right to be tried by one’s own law seems more plausibly to be aimed at the higher ranks of society.   Within the Austrasian Teilreich, then, an aristocrat could effectively employ an ethnic identity from outside the kingdom.

This is underlined by Fredegar’s account, which shows that when the aristocracy of the different Teilreiche came together within the aristocracy in the politics of the broader Frankish kingdom, their different ethnicities were noted.  The context of Fredegar’s description, moreover, makes it clear that aristocrats of all of these different identities (including Roman) were involved in leading the army.[6]  Simple administrative function within the realm’s governmental structures, then, does not explain ethnic difference, as had been the case in the sixth century.  Fredegar’s Chronicle regularly notes which of the various Frankish Teilreichea particular nobleman came from.  Fredegar particularly mentions those from Burgundy, evidently his own region, for whom he occasionally uses the term Burgundaefarones (loosely: the clans of the Burgundians).  These features are generally absent from the writings of Gregory of Tours, who commonly identifies the actors in his account by the civitas of origin or simply qualifies them as a Frank.  While the Frankish label is clearly ethnic, it can also function, for Gregory, as a description of the highest political levels of the realm. On the other hand, an identity focused on a city-district is more than a geographical denomination;[7]it is a form, or level, of ethnicity.  What seems different in Fredegar’s vocabulary is the increasing stress laid upon broader identities within the ‘kingdom of the Franks’.

However, while this does seem, as mentioned, to be a largely aristocratic phenomenon on the texts, that may be because of the greater ability of the more powerful strata of society to move within the realm and come into contact with each other.  Returning to the level of the regional Teilreiche it may be that the free population came to share the same regional identity.  Ripuarian Law uses the term francus to mean a Frank from outside the region.  Sometimes it employs romanusto mean an outsider as well.[8]  The standard member of the free population (man or woman) is called a Ripuarian.  It may be significant that this regional label is used, rather than a more obviously ‘ethnic’ term or qualifier like ‘Frank’ (or Ripuarian Frank).  That would fit with the use of identities based upon regional kingdom used in Fredegar’s Chronicle.  When discussing society from within the territory of the Ripuarians, however, the ‘Romans’ are no longer an element of the free population, divided into grades roughly equivalent to those of the Franks, as in Pactus Legis Salicae.  Instead, they have slipped down the scale to being a semi-free social category, needing Ripuarians to speak for them at law.  One exception to this rule may have lain in the region of Trier, where some of the local population clung on to a Roman identity.  According to his biographer, Saint Gaugeric (later Bishop of Cambrai) was born in the late sixth century into a family of ‘Romans’ of the middling sort.  In the seventh century, another holy man from the same civitas, Saint Germanus of Grandval, was born into a family of ‘senators’.  It may, however, be suggestive that Germanus’ familial identity was based upon senatorial rank rather than a Roman ethnicity.  Perhaps even here the cachet of Roman identity had been seriously weakened.  An increasing stress on rank rather than ethnicity would tie in with other developments.

The ethnic structure of the Frankish kingdoms seems, therefore, subtly but importantly different in the seventh century.  Regional, ‘kingdom’ ethnicities appear to be important and, within those regions, the free population appears to share that identity.  Furthermore, whereas ethnic identity in the sixth-century Merovingian realm had largely related to function within the realm and could thus be brought together in the kingdom itself, there is no such mechanism that similarly ties Neustrians to Austrasians, to Burgundians within the overarching structure of the regnum francorum.  These look more like regional factions or interest-groups within the ‘kingdom of the Franks’, a feature that seems to be underlined by repeated Austrasian demands to have a king located within their region.  Even the other Teilreich, however, remained divided into Burgundians and Neustrians.  In its broader sense, the seventh-century kingdom seems, in a very real sense, to be significantly more ‘polyethnic’ than its sixth-century predecessor.


[1]Gregory of Tours, LH 5.Preface.
[2] W. Goffart, Barbarian Tides
[3]Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp.35-45.
[4]Most significantly and ironically, there is, as far as I can see, no sufficient examination or theorisation of what an identity is in the volume Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, ed. R. Corradini, R. Meens, C. Pösel & P. Shaw (Vienna, 2006).
[5] A. Gillett, ‘Was ethnicity politicised?’
[6]Note that the names do not give a very clear indication of origin.  The sole ‘Roman’, Chramnelen, has a Germanic name whereas one of the ‘Franks’, Barontus, has a Roman name.
[7]In the same way that today, if one says that someone ‘comes from’ Jamaica or Germany that is more than a simple account of their geographical origins.  Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, p.39.
[8]For a similar use, to mean someone from the south, see Life of Eligius.