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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Post-Modern History: A critique (for students) of Keith Jenkins’ Re-Thinking History

(Non) Credo
I do not believe that the point of history is to seek the ‘truth’, at least as usually conceived.  Nor do I think that historical research is capable of recovering such a thing even if it were its purpose.  As I have said repeatedly on this blog, the purpose of history (as opposed to chronicling and antiquarianism) goes far beyond the establishment of things that did or did not happen (politically useful though those limited objectives might sometimes be), which nevertheless remain the (not always easily-established) base upon which the practice of History itself takes place.  As I think I have said before, the base of much physics is mathematics, but that does not mean that theoretical physics reduces to maths.

The 1990s saw a number of debates about the nature of Truth, sometimes referred to collectively as ‘The Truth Wars’.  One of the less intellectually-improving skirmishes around the edge of this cultural moment concerned ‘postmodern history’, specifically the publication of Re-Thinking History by Keith Jenkins, and various responses to it. This book occasioned a flurry of books by Jenkins and his acolytes (most notably Jenkins’ side-kick Alun Munslow, who must rank as the most un-self-conscious sycophant in the recent, or possibly the entire, history of the discipline) and a journal of Re-Thinking History.

One of the reasons why this book continues to have its doleful influence is that most of the responses to it were very weak, especially Richard Evans’ In Defence of History.  Evans sought to defend history from an ‘onslaught’ of postmodernist critiques, although it is very strongly suggested by the book’s argument and footnotes that Evans had read, first-hand, hardly any at all of the works of hardly any at all (beyond some Foucault) of the philosophers whom he bracketed as being at the root of this onslaught, much less understood them.  Indeed, there are some reasons to suppose he had not read some of the ‘postmodern’ critical articles that he did cite (at least in their entirety).  You might ponder that that was a pretty serious (and ironic) flaw in a book trumpeting the virtues of empirical research amongst the documents, but there we are. 

Be all that as it may, one argument (amongst other ad hominem critiques) was to attack Jenkins for not being ‘a proper historian’.  There are, to be sure, points where some better-founded knowledge – not necessarily first-hand experience – of how historians go about their research would have saved Jenkins from some misunderstandings. But whether or not Jenkins is an historian, a ‘working historian’, a ‘proper historian’ or whatever, misses the point.  Do you need to be a painter to theorise about aesthetics?  Do you need to be a practising scientist to think about the philosophy of science?  If the issue is epistemology, the status of historians’ truth-claims, of course you don’t need to be someone who actually researches and publishes about the past.  Jenkins took his stand as a philosopher of history, not as an historian.

Another response to Jenkins was the glib one often thrown at ‘postmodernists’, that goes: ‘aha: you say that all arguments are positioned and their authority only relative, so your argument must be, too!’  To which I assume that Jenkins would reply ‘Erm, well, yes.  That is kind of the point.’ [Although it would be somewhat undermined by his later claims to have ‘won’ the debate.]  The argument that there is no single objective truth is not some version of the Cretan (or Epimenides’] Paradox which is rendered false by being true or vice versa: e.g. ‘all statements are lies’.

Critiques which started (or derived authority) from the position of being ‘a working historian’, saying – in effect – that is not how we do it would find it difficult to really land an effective blow as, rightly or wrongly, they could themselves be dismissed as positioned, self-interested defences of the status quo.

Thus attacks on the book from without – that is to say critiques of the degree of fit between its arguments and the external object of the practice of history – tended to be deflected and were indecisive.  We can more effectively critique it from within, by studying its own arguments.  Such a critique will reveal that it is a patchwork of straw men, category errors, muddle and self-contradictions that actually collapses from the inside.  Furthermore, its author seems not even to have understood the ideas of the authorities he uses as the basis of his argument.  In short, the weaknesses of Re-Thinking History lie not in its author not being ‘a proper (or ‘working’) historian’ or in it, as a book, supposedly not being good history but in the fact that it is a shockingly bad piece of philosophy.  And I say that – let’s be clear – without (unlike Jenkins) claiming to be any sort of trained or qualified philosopher.

There are valid points of critique within the book.  Historians are very often un-self-conscious about what they do.  And it is true that a lot of history goes on being entirely unreflexive about what it does or why.  I would say (I’ve said it before) that the discipline is complacent, and that it has no clear idea of what it is there for.  Books published in 2009 still claim that history is about a verifiable search for truth, and so on.  These are all areas where History does need to be called out.  In this sense Re-Thinking History and the similarly weak books that poured forth in its wake have had a negative effect.  It remains on many historiography courses (like ours) but I suspect as a kind of straw man, almost as a false-flag operation by traditionalist positivist empiricists.  It is so bad that Evans (vel sim) can be deployed as riding to the rescue of beleaguered Klio with all his easy humour, bonhomie and good old common sense and all can go on as before.  Phew! Hurrah! Re-Thinking History can be deployed as a smoke-screen to mask rather better work (often pre-dating its publication) with better and more germane critiques of the discipline.  So here is my critique, from a position of someone who has tried to write self-reflexive history for over twenty years and who does believe that (more or less) plausible, (more or less) patchy and (always) incomplete re-descriptions of the past (as it impinged upon the people who produced its traces) are possible but who also thinks that that is not ultimately the purpose of history, who doesn’t think that ‘truth’ is (or can be) attainable and who believes that history, narratives and so on are present constructions which are not imposed by the past as it was lived.[1]  In other words, if anyone ought to have been at least vaguely sympathetic to Jenkins, it was me, but I’m not.

So the point in this piece is to provide a brief (roughly a page and a half) but fair summary of the text, which will save students having to read it, and a detailed critique that will provide them with the arguments they need to dismantle it on its own terms.  But, that critique is not one which will let traditional positive empiricism or current complacent historical practice off the hook.  If that looks like a rather naughty way of undermining everyone’s seminars on ‘postmodern history’,[2] that is because it is.  If we drop Re-thinking History and the drivel it inspired from our historiography courses we can forget the whole sorry episode (or at least look back with embarrassment, roll our eyes and ask 'wtf?') and clear the way for some more rigorous questioning of, and self-reflexivity about, the practice of history.  Students: read, use freely, and share widely!

The argument
First of all, though, a basic summary of the argument.  Within the constraints of space, I will strive to make this a fair account.

In Chapter 1 (What History Is: pp.6-32), J argues that History is not in itself The Past.  As a result, it cannot provide an objective account or recreation of the Past.  History is and can only be a discourse.  The historian’s view is conditioned by his/her time, social background, institutional position.  History is about stories, but the past comes down to us as stories (p.11) so there is no way of breaking out of a linguistic ‘bind’.  Language always supports multiple readings.  It is always the historian’s personal construct and the choices of topic, the kinds of evidence or the weight assigned to different pieces of evidence is governed by this.  History is given shape by the historian.  So history is something that is made at particular points in time and space and ‘imprisoned’ by that fact, rather than something that is, and is reachable, ‘out there’.   Consequently, all histories are logically equivalent and one cannot be chosen over another on the grounds of ‘correspondence’ with the objective truth of history.  ‘Everything is relative (historicist)’ (p.30).  The only way one history gains ground over another is through the operation of power.  Some discourses are dominant, others subordinate.  The truth claims of academic history stem only from universities’ position as the guardians of ideological control.  Consensus only occurs, says J, where dominant voices silence the others (p.23).  All accounts are relative and problematic (p.30).  J argues that this is empowering: history can be whatever you want.  But also, not being able to judge between histories on account of ‘correspondence’ is not entirely disabling: to understand different histories you have to analyse the power relations in which they are enmeshed.  You should ask not ‘what history is’ but ‘who history is for’.

Chapter 2 (On Some Questions and Some Answers: pp.33-69)
In this chapter J discusses a number of key issues in historical research, beginning with ‘truth’ (pp.34-39).  In this section he argues essentially that the desire for truth is a sort of basic psychological need and that we fear being cut off from this.  Using a discussion by Foucault of a passage from Borges about a Chinese encyclopaedia with strange categories,[3] he suggests that we abandon what we think of as objective categories and embrace uncertainty.  The connection between word and world is arbitrary he claims, using various thinkers including Derrida.  Truths are just ‘useful fictions’ (p.39).

Moving onto the issue of facts (pp.40-44), J says that Historians are concerned with more than discrete facts. They combine them into arguments and think that the resultant arguments/interpretations are true.  This is because they think that facts render arguments true/accurate.  He cites an article by Skidelsky claiming that interpretation only exists peripherally around a core of accepted factual knowledge.  J then points out that the ideas of ‘centres’ (like that factual core) cannot be seen as other than contingent, placed on a sliding spectrum.  J moves on to some fairly unremarkable comments on ‘bias’ (pp.44-47), concluding that because they see their centre position as objective, empiricists see bias as something only affecting others, although they cannot be unbiased themselves. 

On that basis J moves on to spend ten pages (pp.47-57) on empathy, in which he decries the attempt to try and think yourself into a past world in order to understand and explain.  Philosophers like Wittgenstein have discussed the problem of ‘other minds’ and how difficult it is to know how someone else feels, so how much more difficult must this be with other periods and places?  People in the past were different from us (p.56).  J argues that the attempt to think yourself into the past is an attempt to colonise the past with modern bourgeois, liberal, capitalist attitudes.   So, as with the attempt to portray an objective empiricist view as a neutral centre, this would seem to argue that empathy is an attempt to show certain modes of thought as transcendent and normal [at least that is how I understand the argument to go].

The discussion of sources (pp.57-53) develops the main thrust of the argument to claim that evidence is only used to support arguments, and so is not itself free from the discourse.  The past happened and it leaves traces which exist whether we look at/for them or not, but these traces only become evidence when used in a positioned way to support an argument. Citing Roland Barthes (pp.60-61), J states that what history is inevitably only a copy, in discourse, of something that exists in the ‘Real’ but which cannot be captured independently of discourse.

The section on causation essentially repeats the point made already that issues like causation etc. cannot be a fact, or ‘true’, and argues that one interpretation only wins out over another because of strategies of discourse of which academic historians are the guardians.  In the conclusion to the chapter (pp.66-69), J says he thinks that relativism and scepticism are a basis for social toleration, using a lengthy quote from Hayden White to support the point.

Chapter 3: (Doing History in a post-modern world: pp.70-84)
This chapter begins with J’s definition of post-modernism.  All the old gods, the old certainties, have turned out to have feet of clay, to be temporary fictions.  He moves on to give a lengthy (pp.72-75) [historical] account of how this happened.  The ‘dominant underlying presuppositions of ‘our times’’ are provided by scepticism, he says, and bolsters this with a discussion of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism.  The bonus, in J’s view, is that there are now myriad forms of history to be used or abused and only some ill-defined figures [presumably academics in old universities: it’s not clear] control the bounds of what is ‘proper history’.  Some ‘brilliant histories’ are marginalised because they are unpalatable to these people (p.79).  But new histories can still be found, that have been hidden away.  Our approach must be to deconstruct and historicise historical accounts. ‘Always historicise’, urges J (p.82).  So the purpose of history is to help us ‘understand the world we live in and the forms of history that have both helped to produce it and which it has produced’ (p.83).

A Critique
Let us assume, on the basis of its essential thesis, that the book’s claim to be taken seriously stands or falls on the basis of the coherence of its argument.  Critique based upon its degree of ‘fit’ with an external reality (‘how the practice of history is’) can be shrugged off according to the book’s points about either the ‘situated-ness’ of the critique or the vested power-interests of the critic (or MRDA[4]: ‘[you] would [say that] wouldn’t [you]’).  The ‘correctness’ or otherwise of the use of authorities is a similarly insecure point from which to critique the book, given the argument made (rightly or wrongly) about the infinite readings of text.  Any such criticisms have to be secondary.

A: Straw Men?
In some ways this is a minor point but it is worth asking yourself, as reader, how convinced you are about the reality of the ostensible target of Re-Thinking History.  How many actual historians are cited?  And how recent are they?  E.H. Carr and Geoffrey Elton are frequently cited: their books on what history is/was were twenty-four to twenty-seven years old when Re-Thinking History was published.  Arthur Marwick’s was twenty-one and Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory a mere whipper-snapper of a book at only thirteen years old.  A trawl through the footnotes provides very few traces of any engagement with (then) recent thinking by historians (say, less than ten years old in 1991).  Is J setting up a straw man to knock the stuffing out of just for his own self-aggrandizement as, one might suspect, might be the book’s own question turned on itself?  The point is that the book does not make the case very convincingly that it is engaging with a current topic/debate.[5] Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. The text itself leaves you with room for serious doubt.

B: Category errors
The next heading under which I want to group my critical points concerns areas where it is simply not clear what J is actually talking about, as the target of his critique seems to slide about between analytically different things, suggesting, at best, some pretty muddled thinking.

J is frequently unclear when it comes to discussing the related network of concepts, truth/fact/interpretation.  See pp.14-15, where J slides from a discussion of events to one of hypotheses and interpretation.  At the top of p.14 he argues that a historical account cannot be checked against the past but only against other accounts.  And yet later (p.40) he is happy enough that events – ‘discrete facts’ (how discrete if, as p.14, already enmeshed in discourse as ‘accounts’?) – exist.  Later still (p.60) he says that traces of the past exist whether or not we look at them (and so are, equally, fundamentally independent of modern constructs).  Thus Jenkins is happy to accept the independent existence of traces of the past and the possibility of establishing ‘discrete facts’ (which surely would be the basis of even the most traditional historical research), yet he seems to want us to believe that we cannot check a historian’s account against anything other than other historians’ accounts (p.14).[6]  He does this essentially by a sleight of hand that puts interpretation and hypothesis in a supposedly-claimed category of fact/truth.  Of course, interpretation, hypothesis and causation cannot lie in the realms of fact or of truth/falsehood.  But interpretation and hypothesis can be judged (not as true/false but as more or less plausible) according to their degree of fit with J’s own categories of ‘discrete fact’ and ‘trace’.  This is a more serious flaw than simply setting up a straw man.   All this relates to what ‘truth’ it might be that J is discussing.  Is it a ‘true picture’, i.e. this did or did not happen to these/those people in this/that order?  Or is it some sort of more transcendent order of truth? 

Here, J is not alone as this is a problem that bedevils discussions of historical truth.  It is this muddle that allows people to argue that so-called postmodernism in history permits, in and of itself, holocaust denial.  No philosopher of whom I am aware, amongst those grouped (usually wrongly) under the heading of postmodernist – and especially not Derrida – would deny that the holocaust happened, or that it and its details are empirically true and indeed verifiable via the sorts of procedures used by, e.g., Deborah Lipstadt or Richard Evans. But equally no historian would argue that there is a single true story of the holocaust.  And what is the truth of the holocaust beyond that (or beyond the obvious point that it was a very Bad Thing)?  That is the level of truth that most of those philosophers are dealing with if and when they say that truth is unreachable.

Essentially J’s argument is based upon his own assumption that interpretations can - ideally - be true.  His argument for the ‘logical’ (rarely has the word logical been used so frequently and with so little irony) relativism of history (contra, e.g. Geoffrey Elton) is essentially that ‘true’ explanations of the past cannot be reached.  Put another way, History = X; therefore, if X is impossible, History is also impossible.  But, if you don’t agree that History is X in the first place (because, say, you never thought that history was about [or capable of] establishing true/false distinctions in interpretation/hypothesis/causation), then the question of the possibility/impossibility of History remains open.  Ultimately, J’s argument is only possible because he has accepted (and shares) Elton’s ideal of what history is; they just differ on whether that ideal is attainable (though see below).  He bolsters his argument only with a quote by Robert Skidelsky in a piece in the TES, which raises a series of further questions. Essentially, what J comes close (on p.13) to realising but ultimately fails to grasp is that what he sees as history's impossibility is its very condition of possibility in the first place.

A similar and related problem arises in J’s discussion of the concepts evidence/source/trace.  Exactly what is he talking about when he discusses the material with which historians work?  Early in the book, he says that the evidence for the past comes always-already in the form of stories.  But is that always the case? He says that the past leaves traces (as we have seen) which can be left undiscovered.  If that is so, how (at least on the first occasion it is encountered and used) can such a trace come ready-made in a story?  The trace/evidence distinction (between traces of the past and evidence used in support of an argument) is well made but is only, to all intents and purposes, a slight reworking of Carr’s fact/evidence distinction from 1964.  But note how the subject of the discussion slides about between the categories of trace and evidence.  Sometimes, in other words, he is treating ‘traces’ as ‘evidence’ and vice versa.

C: Confusion
What kind of history?
Ask yourself what sort of history J thinks he is talking about in his critique.  Does he know?  I do not mean the difference between a right-wing imperialist, a socialist, a feminist or a postcolonial history of the same events (say the Great Bengal Famine of the 1940s), but the different thematic varieties of history.  It seems to me from the text that J is envisaging narrative political history alone as constituting the ‘history’ that he is putatively re-thinking.  But how would the same critiques apply to other types of history (intellectual history, say, or the history of mentalities, both of which relate to my meta-critique, E, below)?

Discourse, Power and Relativism
J seems to me to be pretty crucially muddled about discourse and the operation of power.  For now we must leave aside the issue of whether that is how things work in practice (for what it's worth, I think J’s view is so unidimensional as to be little more than caricature, but we can bracket that).  How well does the concept work within his argument? I am not sure.  J seems to want to believe that you can have any history you like (p.13) and that any historian’s historical work represents, and is dependent upon, personal constructs (pp.14-15).  All historical accounts are ‘imprisoned in time and space’ (p.19).  But he simultaneously wants history to be locked into a constructed discourse (p.11).  It is the discourse, formed over time, that makes you, qua historian, see and read the traces of the past in a specific way.  Discourses are always on the move (ibid).  But in that case it is pretty unclear what concept of discourse J is using (from the text it appears to be Foucault’s but we have to bracket whether or not that concept seems properly to be employed).  How does discourse structure history (and how is history a discourse) if history can be so individual that anyone can make of it what they want?  This would seem to make history not a discourse – a historically-contingent episteme, imprisoning the values and terms of discussion – so much as a discussion, structured around and between kaleidoscopic arrangements of situational, contingent, political alliances of particular individuals, each with their own separately-, individually-produced ideas of history. In that sort of formulation the ideas of discourse and ‘discursive formation’ are pretty much evacuated of any analytical value. What sort of analytically-meaningful discourse, in any case, (you might ask) is so fragile that one professor (J) can come along and say “hey, everyone, do your own thing! Break out of the discourse!”...?

[You might also wonder how this essentially free market consumer-choice model of what history can be – or the ‘liberation’ he sees as being represented by free market choice of histories – fits with J’s posturing about being on the Left and his critique of empathy on the basis that it supposedly normalises free market liberal capitalist thinking, but I digress.]

Related to this is J’s muddled thinking about the operation of power within historical debate. Generally, J sees this as the guardians of the dominant discourse (whatever that may be: see above), who he appears to think (pp.65-66) are ‘university historians’ (all of whom, for some reason, appear amazingly to have agreed on what history is and how it is to be done/used, even though it can be anything,[7] so that one quote from Skidelsky suffices to illustrate what university historians all think).  These people keep unpalatable or unconventional histories/historians in their place (p.23; p.79).  J, however, thinks that his relativism (which he bases on his claim that there are no value-free facts in history, which he later contradicts, as above) is ‘politically enabling’ as it allows millions of different histories to flourish, breaking out of the confines of this elitist domination.  This is where he can indeed be attacked for enabling far right-wing, pro-Nazi, holocaust-denying history. For how, within his model, does one tackle such history if all histories are equally ‘positioned’ and ‘logically’ epistemologically equal?  The only way within his argument (and this is where things get ironic) would be on the basis of de facto power-operations, where the guardians of the discourse, the professors (the Richard Evanses and Deborah Lipstadts) stamp down on the Nazis, not on the basis of greater and more sophisticated fit between interpretation and the traces of the past but by sole virtue of their greater academic/cultural capital.[8]  If J supports the political Left then he would have to welcome such an operation of power, which his whole book is supposed to be criticising and trying to counter…. The problem is that J’s type of relativism is in fact entirely politically disabling. It provides no basis at all on which to challenge dominant views.

D: Self-Contradiction
There are some serious points at which J contradicts himself.  One is in his discussion of empathy. As noted J wants to suggest that other minds cannot be entered into.  To be crude, the other minds argument in philosophy asks questions like ‘how do you know that the colour I call ‘red’ is the same as the colour you perceive as red?  Or, ‘if I stick my hand in some boiling water and scream, how do you know that I am feeling what you would think was pain?’ ‘If I see a crocodile and run away screaming, is it because I am experiencing what you would call fear?’ And so on. [It is an essentially unsurmountable issue that the whole ‘History of the Emotions’ fad conveniently agrees to ignore.] What J seems not to realise, though, is that you can’t somehow ring-fence that problem.  Once you have let it out of the bag, you have no more logical basis for stating that past minds were different from ‘ours’ than for saying that they were just like ours and are entirely reachable on the basis of the statements they left behind.  If you think past minds and ideas can’t be grasped then you simply can't know whether they were the same or different and so the argument that they can be grasped proceeds on the same basis as the belief that they can’t, in other words on the basis of faith alone.   What's more, the fact that Wittgenstein and co said you could not be sure that you know, is not a basis for saying (as does J) that you can’t know.

More to the point, once one gets to pp.52-53, we find J citing Collingwood and Steiner to support an argument that past cultures were different.  But on what basis can such a judgement be made (and its truth-claim be accepted), other than on the basis of the standard historical mode of enquiry and a degree of argument-source/trace fit that J is allegedly re-thinking?  On p.54, furthermore, J cites J.S. Mill and his idea of freedom.  Here, then, J feels sufficiently confident of having been able to get into Mill’s mind, via his texts, as to be able to redescribe what Mill thought about freedom, in spite of his belief (‘I think’, p.56) that past people were ‘very different from us in the meanings they gave their world’ (p.56).  At what point, one might ask J, does he think the past inhabited by ‘past people’ begins… Before John Stuart Mill, evidently. To restate my point, if you think that you can use Mill’s writings to redescribe his views of the world that impinged upon him, and identify differences from modern ideas, then you can logically do the same to find areas of similarity.

This applies to J’s general appeals to authority.  Throughout the book he appeals to other commentators on modern academic practice, sometimes historical, more often not, as furnishing a basis and support for his critique.  But here, quite apart from asking what authority these thinkers can carry according to the terms of his argument and thus why we have to take their views seriously (are they somehow less ‘positioned’ and imprisoned in language/discourse than historians?), we can also ask how he can tell from their writings that what they are talking about is what he understands them to be talking about.  This is where the ‘other minds’ problematic won’t go back into the bottle once you have let it out.  What basis does J have for understanding and agreeing with their account of the world other than a kind of recognition and empathy?  Why is Terry Eagleton’s mind more accessible to others, via his texts, than, say, a Roman centurion’s?  If the answer is that Eagleton and J inhabit the same general cultural milieu or (in Foucauldian terms) episteme then where does that cultural milieu begin and end?  And how can one know other than via an essentially historical enquiry?

[This, incidentally, is where it becomes more than a tad sticky to use Foucault, whose work (whatever you think of it) essentially took the form of historical enquiry predicated on the ability to be able to describe past modes of thought, ideas, techniques of the self, and so on, and changes therein, as a basis for an argument rejecting the possibility of doing any of those things.]      

E: The meta-critique: historicising history
And so we arrive at the most significant problem that besets Re-thinking History and which, more than anything else, tears it apart from within. As we have seen, J’s key argument is that all historical works are ideologically situated (fair enough).  They cannot be judged better or worse according to their fit with an external past reality (we have seen there are problems within his argument there but let us continue) so we can only arrive at the ultimate goal of the book – to understand the world through the histories it has produced – via the analysis of the power-relations involved in the production of different histories, at their various ideological[9] or discursive situations.  All being products of a time and place, his injunction, as we have seen, is ‘always historicise’ (p.82). And there: boom! The whole argument of the book implodes. For how does one go about historicising a text and its author, if not by precisely the sort of historical methodology he wants to reject? How does one situate a book’s author other than by finding out about him/her from the evidence of her/his texts or from other sources of information (the epistemological status of which is exactly the same as that of historical sources)?  How does one situate a historical author within a socio-economic structure other than through a fundamentally historical process of enquiry, by analysing sources of information and putting them together to make up some sort of general picture?  Is this any more possible for modern writers than for people writing in the tenth century?  Probably, but only because we have more data and the gaps in the picture or the story might be smaller or less problematic, but does anyone want to suggest that the picture thus presented of current society and power-structures is going to be any less problematic, any less ‘situated’, any less the product of our discursive formation than the picture we might put together of twelfth-century society, or than the pictures of their world put together by twelfth-century people?  Can my picture of the world in 2016 and how and why it works the way it does, and thus my argument about where Historian X’s writing ‘is coming from’ and why (my historicising of Historian X), be judged better or worse than anyone else’s on anything other than a degree of fit with the evidence produced by or about the world and Historian X? If it can't, then basically I cannot analyse the power structures or discourse producing/produced by Historian X and his/her works? And if I cannot do that (as logically J’s argument suggests I can’t) then I cannot obey his injunction always to historicise.  Or, alternatively, if I can do that, then there is no logical reason why I cannot do the same (albeit, to various degrees, to patchier effect) with, say Matthew Paris, or Herodotus, or Gregory of Tours, or Jules Michelet, or Edward Gibbon, or the person who wrote an early Frankish charter or a diarist during the Hamburg cholera outbreak.  Note though, that I have not taken J’s injunction to historicise him; I have simply analysed the coherence of his text, not least because, as I said at the start, attempts to historicise him have ironically been rejected as the simple products of the critics’ positioning (which again turns the book’s argument inside-out, if you accept its claim that we can meaningfully evaluate historians’ accounts, and understand the world, on the basis of historicising their authors).  Further, if one accepts that historians are imprisoned in language then historicising implies a world outside language (yet a third self-contradiction inherent in the injunction).

If the argument on pp.1-82 (leaving aside the earlier reference to historicising on p.30) is correct, historicising is impossible and the injunction on p.82 is entirely fatuous and, if the instruction to ‘always historicise’ is to be taken seriously, then the book’s entire argument up to p.82 is pointless.  So we must conclude that Re-thinking History is, after all, a Cretan Paradox, and on a grand scale.  If we could be sure that it was deliberate it would be a literary achievement worthy of considerable respect and/or a hoax which worked better than J could have ever have imagined.  Too well, perhaps, as J has been compelled to maintain the pretence, keep playing the role, for the subsequent quarter-century.

My conclusion[10], then, is that this is a book which is entirely incoherent and self-contradictory.  The proposal it makes for dealing with the problems of historical accounts flatly (and completely) contradicts its own analysis of those problems.  You have to ask why a book this bad (as noted, to the extent of being a 90-page paradox) not only gets a place on reading lists (outside a course on ‘how not to argue’), let alone should still be in print in revised editions, having even generated its own literature.  Ironically, the most convincing argument in support of J’s claim for the theoretical/philosophical impoverishment of the historical discipline is the fact that his book was not trashed decisively as soon as it came out.


[1] In other words, we can produce all kinds of stories about the past that are entirely consistent with its traces and which fairly re-describe a past as experienced by actual people – and that matters – but those stories not only do not equal an object history (or The Past) and they were almost certainly not experienced as those stories at the time.  The stories, the linkages of events, the causation and the interpretations are ours, imprisoned in language, sometimes (perhaps usually) unconsciously.  Thus no one single story or account is or can be imposed by the past itself.  Which is ‘the true story’?  Provided they fit the available traces of the past, all of them. Or none.

[2] Theorists in other humanities have tended to look a bit askance at references to ‘postmodern’ historians, as postmodernism is a moment, not a movement, and most of the philosophers claimed to underpin it where quite clear about not being postmodernists (e.g. ‘a term I am on record … as disapproving for both philosophical and sociological reasons’ – Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing, p.xxvii).  In a sense it is about as meaningful as calling Descartes a ‘Seventeenth-Centuryist’ philosopher.  Mostly ‘postmodernist’ is, in Critchley’s term, a traditionalist’s bogeyman (I have been accused of it often enough even though I reject the category), an empty catch-all for ‘things I don’t want to have to think about’.

[3] Entertainingly (or ironically), J seems not to realise that the work by Borges cited by Foucault was a work of fiction.

[5] The defence, I assume, would be that the fact that the book caused a furore amongst historians proves that it was dealing with a hot topic.  Maybe so.  But if I wrote a book which tore into archaeology on the basis of archaeological thinking and practice from the ‘sixties or ‘seventies, arguing that one ought to be entirely skeptical of anything that archaeologists said, or their ability to say ‘reliable’ things about the past, and that any reading of archaeology was ‘logically’ as good as any other, and this books sold thousands of copies and made a big splash, I think it would be fairly safe to assume that it too would cause a furore.  It’s the first (f)law of citation indices: if you want to get lots of citations write something terrible.  In any case, this critique takes the text entirely on its own terms and for the most part eschews external referents.

[6] Ask yourself on what basis J claims to be able to judge the alleged brilliance of the ‘brilliant’ works of history supposedly silenced by the dominant discourse. A distinction between an object past and historians’ writings is also implied in the phrase ‘the past can sustain countless narratives’ (p.22).

[7] Anyone who has ever attended a university history departmental meeting will be especially interested by the idea that academic historians can agree on any important (or even unimportant) topic with anything like unanimity, but I digress again.

[8] In any case, the really tricky issue for non-relativist, politically-engaged historians to confront is not what one does with holocaust-deniers, which easy enough, so much as how one deals, within historical practice, with holocaust-approvers.

[9] I’m not, incidentally, always clear from the text on how J understands ideology (according to Terry Eagleton seems to the only answer it provides), but there we are.

[10] I had initially thought of discussing a range of other problems, external to the text itself, such as whether the ideas of Foucault, Derrida etc. are being used in any way ‘canonically’ or, if they are, whether they support the argument being made, or are consistent with each other, or whether the analysis of historical discourse and its university-based ‘guardians’ stacks up, and so on, but in the end it seemed unnecessary.  Suffice it to say that they are there.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Value of a 'Knowledge of History' in Post-Brexit Britain

The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced that the Conservative government of the UK will (or is at least considering whether to) introduce legislation to compel firms to produce lists of foreign employees.  On this basis it can - allegedly - shame them for not employing enough British people.

Lists of 'foreigners'.  To be distinguished from those people who happened to be born in the contingently-defined area of the earth's surface now recognised as comprising the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  That, after all, is fundamentally how you define a nation in the modern world.

Brexit secretary Liam Fox wants to differentiate between immigrants who arrive “without ever having created anything” and those who -presumably - have created 'something'.

I confess that I find all this terrifying. 

Some people dismiss it as simple pandering to racist elements, things that could never be made workable.  I am not so sanguine about that.  What I am perhaps too sanguine about is that I steadily refuse to believe that everyone who voted for Brexit really thought that it would lead to this or approves of it.  I don't even believe that all Tories approve of this, and indeed Anna Soubry evidently spoke to another fringe group at the same time as Fox was speaking, arguing that politicians had a responsibility to counter, rather than to fuel anti-immigrant feeling when it arose.

More than a few people have pointed out that compiling lists differentiating 'foreign workers' from people with UK citizenship ought to ring some serious alarm bells.  James O'Brien at LBC eloquently pointed out that it has more than a slight ring of Mein Kampf about it (you can possibly find the clip here).  Rudd herself apparently got very annoyed by this sort of rejoinder, claiming that she had been careful to avoid that sort of language - presumably by studiously refusing to quote Mein Kampf in the original German.  One response to the situation has been that if you aren't worried by these developments you need to read more history.

But do you?  Is that the value of a historical education?  Being able to say "Ooh, hang on, isn't that a teeny bit Third-Reich-y"?  With broad historical knowledge you could compile a long list of unsavoury regimes that have done things like this.  In the period I study, the Visigoths passed laws criminalising entire communities who failed to grass up any unconverted Jews in their midst. And so on.

But then so what?

The political come-back to all that is to claim that that is just hysterical.  How can you call us Nazis?  What do we see now in the US if not the fact that the general ubiquity of accusations of Nazism (Goodwin's Law) since 1945 has robbed them of any efficaciousness even when staring something like the real thing right in the face? One problem in political dialogue is that, somehow, accusations from the right of being 'just like Stalin/the Soviet Union' have managed to retain some sort of effectiveness while appeals to similarities with the Nazis are (except on the Far Right, where it is in any case a source of pride) seen as over-the-top.  Has the unique, unimaginable awfulness of the Nazis taken them entirely out of the realms of discourse?  Are they now linked solely to one historically-specific, unrepeatable signifier, with no content in the realm of the imaginary?

In any case, as I will argue in Why History Doesn't Matter, the simple deployment of 'warnings from the past' is very easily countered by any politician worth their salt.  The politician will say that it is an over-reaction; the politician will claim it is a misplaced analogy, for reasons A-Z; the politician will thank the historians but assure them and the voters that policies will be in place to prevent that, or will say that, by learning from the past they will ensure such mistakes do not happen again.

And do you actually need to have amassed that knowledge via a historical education to see that this is a pretty terrifying development?  I don't think so.  Surely, all you need is a minimally-developed sense of basic humanity and power of imagination.  It would be in that sphere that I would claim lies the value of a real historical education.  The critical investigation of what you are told, to be sure, but also the exercises in imagination necessary to conceive of other world views, held by other actual people, and the capacity to be able to listen to those views and trying to understand them - critically of course, and without refusing judgement in the final analysis. You cannot really be critical of something until you have tried to understand it.  The act of understanding and explaining in my experience inevitably dilutes senses of 'otherness'.

That makes it very difficult to write off other human beings simply by attaching to them a set of labels provided by a governing party.

That's how we need to think historically.

My experience of the study of History leads me to conclude that we need to oppose Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Liam Fox and the rest, not because their policies look a bit like those of the Nazis but because by any even entry-level standards of humanity they're just not right.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Worlds of Arthur: The Sequel

[I have started work on my next 'cross-over' book, which is provisionally at least called Myths of the Migrations: Facts and Fictions of the Barbarians. As a teaster and to illustrate what it's about, here is the first draft of the introduction.]

After the rise and crimes of the Nazis, the Fall of the Roman Empire has a good claim to being the historical problem most alluded to in modern political discourse.  By this is meant the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, in a series of events beginning in 376 with the crossing of the Danube by the Goths and ending – neatly enough – one hundred years later with the deposition of the boy-emperor Romulus ‘Augustulus’ (‘Little Emperor’) by one of his generals.  That general, Odovacar, sent the imperial regalia to the eastern Emperor Zeno in Constantinople with a message saying there was no longer any need for an emperor in the west; Zeno could rule the whole empire.  Thus, in traditional histories, the western Roman Empire came to an end, after ruling western Europe for almost exactly half a millennium (503 years, by normal reckoning, counting from the senate’s award to Octavian of the titles Augustus and princeps).

Of course, in the historical significance stakes the Fall of the Roman Empire has a 1450-year head-start on the Nazis, so if one looks at European political discourse over the long term the relative importance of the western Empire’s demise dwarfs that of the Third Reich.  The image of the Roman Empire dominated European history right up to Mussolini’s employment of Roman symbols and his ideological claims that his regime and expansionist policies in Africa and the Mediterranean represented a rebirth the Roman Empire.  In this, Mussolini was in considerably better company than he deserved.  Rebirths of Rome pepper the history of the West, from Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor in 800, through that of Otto I, the claims of the Tsars to have founded a third Rome in Moscow, to Napoleon.  The final overthrow of the Bonapartes and their eagle-tipped standards was at the hands of the Hohenzollern kings of Prussia whose own imagery featured a thunderbolt-wielding eagle of Roman inspiration.  The summation of Wilhelm III’s victory, as is well known, was his proclamation as Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Kaiser (like Tsar in Russian) simply means Caesar.

How and why the First Rome had fallen was, then, an issue of more than passing interest.  It was important too because many of the ruling dynasties or aristocracies of western Europe claimed a descent from barbarian people who were supposed to have overthrown the Empire.  This produced the somewhat schizophrenic attitude towards the barbarians and the end of the Roman Empire that existed in western Europe up to and including the Nazis (whose own imagery borrowed from the Roman symbolic library).  The summit of legitimacy was to found a new Rome and yet at the same time pride was taken in descent from the people who had conquered that Empire.  The Romans could be, at one and the same time, miserable degenerate descendants of a once-great race and the very touch-stone of political legitimacy.  The way to square this circle was to claim that the mantle of Rome was passed, via the process of translatio imperii (the transfer of domination), from one people to another; as one people, such as the Romans themselves, grew unworthy of the power and dignity they had accrued, another arose to take it from them and the baton of empire was passed on. Ironically perhaps, this idea had its own roots in Roman thinking, as the Romans had theorised how world power had come to be passed to them from the Greeks and the heirs of Alexander.  Unsurprisingly, given the Nazis’ fairly omnivorous attitude when it came to finding ideological inspiration, the Third Reich bore witness to these trends.  Their Roman-inspired eagles coexisted with ideas of the triumphant destiny of the Germanic Volk, descended from the barbarians who brought down the Roman Empire.

The two-sided attitude to the Empire and its demise continues in contemporary politics.  The European far right simultaneously embraces the northern barbarians and the idea of the civilised empire of Europe, faced with barbarous aggressors.  Far Right groups in England, for example, love to identify with the ‘Englisc’ (the Old English spelling of English) people or Folk, adopting Old English (Anglo-Saxon) personal names in their discussion groups.  Popular demagogues have become fond of likening the influx of immigrants and refugees into the European Community to the invasion of Rome by the barbarians.  Alongside the claim that Muslim immigrants threaten Europe’s ‘Judaeo-Christian roots’ (made by people whose ideological forerunners were herding the Jews into gas chambers seventy-five years ago[1])  conservative leaders and journalists have repeatedly drawn upon the Fall of Rome as a ‘warning’ from history.  In this they have been helped by academics who have written what might, most generously, be termed irresponsible volumes on the subject or who have given public lectures, in the context of discussions of the ‘refugee crisis’, about how migration destroyed the Roman Empire.  Internet commentators, meanwhile, denigrate modern books that look more critically at the traditional narrative as driven by ‘liberal’ ‘political correctness’ or even as perpetrators of some sort of conspiracy theory.

The end of the Roman Empire has featured in political dialogue not only in conjunction with the supposed causes and effects of the barbarian migrations.  The causes for the collapse of this great political structure, the only one in history to govern most of western Europe and northern Africa (and, in the eastern Empire, the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Levant too) for any length of time, have at various times been sought in many other areas, such as a collapse of morality or the Romans’ interbreeding with other ‘races’.  This sort of view is still occasionally propounded, so I have tried to deal with some of its aspects as well, although at much lesser length than the issues concerning barbarian migrations or conquest.

The need for a discussion of the role of the barbarians in the collapse of the western Roman Empire therefore remains as important as ever.  This book takes a different approach from others on the subject in that it is primarily a book about questions rather than answers.  Rather than pursuing a particular line of argument in explaining the end of Rome or the Barbarian Migrations – you can find my interpretation elsewhere – it seeks to provide more of a tool-kit for people confronted with ideas and arguments about the period 376-476, or with claims to seek ‘warnings’ or ‘lessons’ in the events of that dramatic century.  To this end it principally discusses what I have called the myths of the migrations.  By myths I have striven to avoid the temptation found in other areas of historical debate (such as that on the British high command’s conduct of the First World War) simply to label dissenting or currently unfashionable interpretations as myths.  I have restricted myself to issues where contemporary evidence for a particular interpretation or argument is either entirely absent or has been read in a fashion that is illogical or goes beyond the possibilities of that form of data.  In other words, these are things which people have chosen to believe in spite of the lack of an empirically verifiable basis for such a belief, perhaps because it shores up a particular idea about the way the world is or ought to be.  This seems like a fair definition of a myth. 

The nature of archaeological research and the occasional discovery of new texts (or more usually fragments thereof) means that it may be that new evidence is unearthed in future that provides empirical bases for some of the ideas described here as myths.  That is a risk that must be run and in such instances I will accept the egg on my face.  Nonetheless, it must be accepted that in the current state of our knowledge these ideas only count as myth and, should future discoveries turn out to confirm them, that will not retrospectively confer methodological rigour on their proponents up to this point; such confirmation can only have the logical status of happy coincidence.

The tool-kit aspect of this book comprises not simply a list of ‘things to watch out for’ – things presented as facts or solid bases for argument that are no such thing – but attempts to go beyond that to draw out some key aspects of how we employ evidence from this period.  Late antique historical and archaeological evidence is not easy to use.  There are numerous reasons why the archaeology needs special care in its handling when pressed into the service of grand narrative history like that involved in broad sweep discussions of large-scale processes like the movement of people or the collapse of a complex political organisation; material culture does not (and cannot) always address the same issues as the contemporary written sources (and vice versa).  At the same time, the documentary evidence is much more complex than might at first seem to be the case.  The first chapter of this book therefore provides a brief account of the types of evidence available for the study of the fourth and fifth centuries and the key points one must bear in mind when examining it.  Setting out some of the reasons why this is so and the questions one needs to ask before accepting an interpretation is intended to enhance the reader’s ability to adopt a critical or sceptical stance when faced with interpretations of this important period of history and, still more so, its employment in contemporary political debate. 

Those interpretations, naturally, ought to include my own.  By the very nature of things, the myths set out in this book are ones that I have spotted, either in my research or thanks to the studies of other scholars.  Equally naturally, I have been unable to identify the blind spots that currently remain in my own work, in terms of arguments or interpretations too readily accepted without sufficient scrutiny.  This is why I have tried to discuss general principles as well as actual instances of what I have called ‘myth’.  Restricting myself to the latter would obviously render my own work critically untouched; adding the tools for critical reading should allow a reader to be properly sceptical before accepting (if she does) my version of events and to identify my own myths if and where they occur.  Should such things be revealed, I have to hold my hands up and accept the judgement.

I have gone beyond the cataloguing of myths and into the provision of a critical ‘tool-kit’ because I firmly believe that the principal reasons for studying history are not to be sought in the simple acquisition of knowledge of things that did or did not happen in the past.  In my view, they are, first, to learn to be critically aware and, second, to expose oneself to other experiences and ways of seeing the world, to embrace a common humanity.  There is a slight tension involved in bringing these two maxims together.  On the one hand, according to the second reason just stated, we are enjoined to listen to our sources as far as possible on their own terms and to give them a fair hearing.  On the other, though, according to the first of my reasons to study history, we are instructed to subject those sources to close and critical attention before believing their account.  This tension is perhaps more apparent than real.  Historians have been fond of thinking about historical enquiry in terms of forensic investigation, whether through the medium of the metaphor of the historian as detective or in that of the courtroom of history.  There are problems with these metaphors but, for present purposes, viewing through this sort of prism the ideas of giving an account a fair hearing and subjecting it to thorough scrutiny allows them seem less contradictory.  Paying fair attention to other views of the world does not automatically confer upon them an equal validity; it permits us to see that our way of seeing and organising the world is not necessarily the only, let alone the natural, way.  In terms of seeing a purpose for historical study that latter advantage is extremely important. 

It is also my view that that attitude and those principles should be extended from the analysis of source materials, written or excavated, to the discussion of historical interpretation.  The debate over interpretations of processes like the barbarian migrations could have been far more productive over recent decades had it been conducted more as a discussion than as a contest.  An unwillingness to listen to, or deal with, arguments in a sufficiently sophisticated way, a refusal to modify one’s opinion (let alone change one’s mind), a belief that one’s own theory must be entirely correct in all cases and an overwhelming desire to ‘win’ the argument have been too prevalent on all sides.  I confess to some self-interest here.  I have been labelled an ‘anti-migrationist’, an interpretation of my work on the subject that can only be held by not properly bothering to read what I have actually written.  One thing historians ought to be aware of by now – they trumpet the view often enough even if taking it little into account in their writings – is that it is simply not possible to know the past ‘as it really was’.  This makes historical debate, inevitably, an exercise in different shades of approximation and error.  We need to stop hammering the sources into a pre-ordained interpretive straightjacket, explaining away the bits that don’t fit or euphemistically labelling the data that agree with our view ‘the better evidence’ (and therefore those that don’t as somehow qualitatively worse).  Instead, we need models that can cope with the fuzziness and discordance of the contemporary voices (written and material) and have sufficient complexity and elasticity to evolve in accordance with discussion and further data.  In line with that, I have attempted as far as possible to limit my polemic here to ideas which are simply not supported by evidence, as a means of stripping away some deadwood to allow new discussions to bear more fruit.

Provisional Contents List:


Chapter 1: The evidence

Chapter 2: The Debates

Chapter 3: The Barbarians at Home

Chapter 4: The Frontier: A clash of civilisations

Chapter 5: The Horrible Huns

Chapter 6: The Barbarian Invasion of the Roman Empire

Chapter 7: The End of Civilisation

Chapter 8: Different Questions: Another vision

[1] I predict that if, in a future world, the baton of ‘hateful outsider’ is passed on from Muslims to Sikhs or Hindus, these right-wingers or their heirs will instead be bleating about the preservation of Europe’s roots in the Abrahamic religions.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Rethinking Warfare and Politics in Britain 400-600

The traditional view of warfare in Britain in the two centuries following the end of imperial Roman government there envisages things very much in aquatic terms.  A ‘tide’ of migrating Anglo-Saxons ‘washes’ or ‘flows’ over the former provinces.  The newcomers come in ‘waves’ and ‘swamp’ Romano-British culture, ‘flooding’ it with new influences.  The spread of Anglo-Saxon population, culture and influence is seen to spread across the land, from east to west with a discernible ‘front line’: Romano-Britons to the west of it and Anglo-Saxons to the east.[1]  We can plot the movement of the newcomers from their cemeteries (inhumations and cremations with grave-goods) and some sorts of settlement (with certain types of timber hall and sunken buildings or Grubenhäuser). Supposed exceptions to this picture are described as ‘reservations’ – metaphors from the frontiers of European colonization of America and elsewhere are also common in discussions of the period.  The sides involved in the fighting are seen as two quite separate cultures with very different ways of waging war.  In the east, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes wage war on foot.  Some may ride to battle but dismount to fight.  Their weapons are principally spears and shields, though their leaders carry swords and all bear the seax (knife) that supposedly gave the Saxons their name.  To the west the Britons try to maintain a more Roman way of doing things.  They employ mounted as well as dismounted warriors, and their leaders are thought to ride in this cavalry force.  Their campaigns are based upon refortified Iron-Age hillforts, such as have been excavated at places like South Cadbury (Somerset).

This account represents an extreme version of a particular view, to which few scholars today would subscribe in its entirety.  But it is certainly no caricature.  These images and metaphors are so common that people who write about the topic fall into them seemingly unconsciously.  The assumptions behind them permeate discussions of the subject, even when an author is trying to call older ideas into question.  In recent decades many of these ideas have been disputed but without a clear consensus emerging among scholars.  One reason why a more moderate version of the image sketched in my first paragraph probably remains the majority view of the period, and why attempts to revise the picture have made little headway – in spite of the many problems inherent in the older view – is that a series of unexamined assumptions that underlies almost all investigations into post-imperial Britain.  In this essay I want to uncover those and expose them to some scrutiny.  I will do this by placing Britain more firmly in a broader European context. Much of the misunderstanding that bedevils current approaches stems from a failure to do this.

Inevitably we need to begin with an account of the sources for this enquiry, and their many problems.  How do we know what we know about Britain between c.400 and c.600.  Indeed, do we know what we often think we know?  Discussions of the evidence for post-imperial Britain can make for rather depressing reading.  To be brief, there are almost no written sources that can be relied upon to aid our enquiry.  The events surrounding the rebellion of Constantine ‘III’ and his ill-fated attempt to usurp the western imperial throne with the support of the British army (407-11) are well enough documented but after that an almost impenetrable darkness descends upon Britain that lasts until the arrival of the missionary saint Augustine in 597.  The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre by Constantius of Lyon tells us how the bishop was sent to deal with allegations of Pelagian heresy in Britain in 428-9 and, while there, helped a British army to defeat an army of barbarians.  This source has its problems but gives us some insights into what British society was like in the 420s. 

Other than that, the only written work definitely composed in Britain between 400 and 600 was the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Destruction and Conquest of Britain) by Gildas.  This is a sermon, mostly concerned with the (in Gildas’ view) shocking state of the British church and (to a lesser extent) the misdeeds of its rulers but near its beginning it sets out a brief account of Britain’s history between the Roman invasion and Gildas’ own day.  This formed the basis for every subsequent attempt to write a history of Britain in our period.  It is here that we hear of the Britons’ unsuccessful appeal for help to Aëtius the magister militum in Gaul, about the general Ambrosius Aurelianus and his wars against the Saxons, and about the battle of Mount Badon. Unfortunately, the account is highly rhetorical, polemical and stylised, and impossible to place in any sort of neat sequence.  If we had any other written account of British history in this period, we would probably view it very differently.  There is no good reason to doubt that the appeal to Aëtius (which must belong in the late 440s or early 450s), Ambrosius’ wars or the battle of Mount Badon happened, but more than that is impossible to say.  We have no certain idea who Gildas was or where or when he was writing (which could have been at any time between c.475 and c.550 – perhaps later).

The other sources available to us include Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731), the History of the Britons sometimes attributed to Nennius (829), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (880s onwards) and the Welsh Annals (c.975).  Many of the features of the usual histories of the period, not least ‘Arthur’ (never called a king) and his battles (first definitely found in the History of the Britons), Vortigern and Hengist and Horsa, most of the battles recorded between Britons and Saxons and so on, are found in these sources.  Unfortunately, they are, as will have been noticed, all very much later than our period.  It is very clear that the earliest of these writers, Bede, like us, knew pretty much nothing about the period between Germanus of Auxerre and Augustine of Canterbury.  Not only are the sources late; they all also have very clear political agendas relating to the time in which they were written.  This clearly influenced the sort of history they were telling.  Furthermore, although there are traces of what looks like material from ‘oral tradition’ in some of the sources, we have no idea how early or reliable it is, or how the later authors have adapted it.  There are, furthermore, no indications that any of these sources were based upon lost earlier works.

The only other written sources that might help us are some early Welsh poems allegedly by the bards Taleisin and Aneirin (in whose epic Y Gododdin is also to be found an early reference to Arthur).  It is from these that many of our ideas about post-imperial British warfare have been derived.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to be certain of the date of these poems. They purport to belong to the period around 600 but the manuscripts are very much later.  It may be that some elements belong to the early seventh century but we cannot be sure.

It is really impossible, on the basis of these sources, to construct a narrative political history of Britain between 400 and 600. This sounds like a counsel of despair but abandoning the written sources does not leave us without hope.  In fact, it allows us to break free of the obsessions of eighth- to tenth-century Anglo-Saxon and Welsh authors and rethink the problems of British history in this period.  We can use the plentiful archaeological material that survives on its own terms, rather than attempting to make it fit the story drawn from later, unreliable written works.  We can also consider our evidence in the light of what we know from the much better written sources from the mainland of Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The Anglo-Saxon Migration
One of the main areas of debate in recent decades has been about the nature and scale of the Anglo-Saxon (English) migration.  The traditional view is of a massive ‘folk migration’ bringing with it all sorts of cultural influences.  Thus the archaeological traces belonging to the fifth and sixth centuries in the lowlands of Britain have traditionally been thought of as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and read as simple cultural markers of the presence of immigrants from northern Germany.  Such elements include the settlements and cemeteries alluded to earlier.  Metalwork and other elements of culture that can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon homelands in the north-west of Germany begin to appear in south-eastern England from c.430, a date not far out of line with the date suggested for the arrival of the Saxons (adventus saxonum) in the later written sources.  It was suggested that the advance of the Anglo-Saxons could be plotted from the spread of these cemeteries and settlement-types, to the extent that the supposed forty years of peace that followed the Battle of Mount Badon according to one reading of Gildas (Gildas does not actually say this!) could, allegedly, be seen in the archaeological record.

In the 1980s and 1990s a reaction to this view set in, which at times came close to claiming that the whole idea of the Anglo-Saxon migration was something made up by Bede!  Whether or not ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology’ truly marked the presence of incoming Anglo-Saxons or was really derived from the north-west of Germany was debated.  The idea was proposed that, rather than a mass ‘folk migration’, the Anglo-Saxon movement to Britain was in fact a political take-over by a smaller, élite group of newcomers.  The spread of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ material culture represented not the movement of Anglo-Saxon people but the spread of Anglo-Saxon lordship.  These minimalist views have not convinced everyone.

A ‘middle way’ between these viewpoints is possible.  It is clear that there was a migration of people from the North Sea coastal areas of Germany into the lowlands of Britain.  Some cultural artefacts – not least the English language – are impossible to account for satisfactorily without acknowledging that fact.  But the English migration was not like most other ‘barbarian migrations’.  It was a product of a North Sea culture that predated the migrations, with movement in all directions across and around that Sea, exchanging all kinds of cultural influences.  In the fourth century these influences were overwhelmingly Roman, spreading north from the imperial provinces into barbaricum.  Links between north-western Germania Magna and Britain (and northern Gaul) already existed, therefore, and Saxons were long accustomed to moving into the Roman Empire, sometimes as raiders and sometimes as recruits for the army.  Saxon migration into Britain could have begun long before Constantine ‘III’ launched his rebellion.  It is worth remembering that most barbarian immigrants into the Empire left no archaeological trace.  When the western Roman Empire underwent a period of crisis around 400, its effects are as archaeologically visible in the Saxon homelands as they are in the northern Gallic and British provinces.  Stress in the Saxon homelands and new opportunities in the Empire’s north-western provinces all fed into the matrix of factors governing Saxon migration.  The appearance of ‘Saxon’ archaeology in the 430s probably marks the point at which such newcomers felt able or confident enough to proclaim their cultural identity (perhaps as the ‘Saxon rebellion’ alluded to by Gildas) rather than the date at which settlers arrived.

It is important to note, however, that movement across the North Sea was a long-term phenomenon.  Unlike, say, the Gothic migration into Aquitaine, where the Goths all arrived at once, Anglo-Saxon migration took place across many decades.  The numbers of newcomers or ‘first-generation’ migrants in Britain at any one time could have been very small but the continuing arrival of other Saxons would act constantly to ‘top up’ their culture.

The moving front
One of the migrations most similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons was probably the drift of the Franks across the Rhine into the far northern provinces of the Empire’s Gallic prefecture.  When we come to think about how the lowlands of Britain became English kingdoms the Frankish comparison might help us.  The Frankish takeover of northern Gaul has often been envisaged in similar terms to those used in the study of how the English took over lowland Britain: as a front line moving steadily southwards and westwards from the Rhine frontier.  The documentary sources for this are almost (but not quite) as inadequate as those for Britain and the archaeological evidence used to plot Frankish settlement is remarkably similar (in spite of the fact that the archaeologies of the pre-migratory Frankish and Saxon homelands are quite different): furnished inhumation cemeteries (burials with grave-goods) and settlements composed of post-built halls and Grubenhäuser).  The front line of Frankish settlement at a given date has repeatedly been plotted from the southern extent of the furnished inhumation cemeteries.

However, because our written evidence for fifth- and sixth-century Gallic history is better than that for Britain we know that this image is at best only a part of the whole story, and perhaps not the most significant component.  Two key points that emerge from a study of the fifth-century Franks.  The first is that the Frankish advance from across the Rhine was not the most decisive factor in the creation of the Frankish kingdom.  The second is that straightforward ‘binary’ warfare between Franks on one side and Romans or Gallo-Romans on the other hardly featured in the process at all.  To take these points in order, it is clear that the decisive military force in the period was the ‘Roman’ army based on the Loire around Orléans.  This army was often referred to as ‘the Franks’ because it was composed heavily of Frankish recruits and their officers but for quite a long time it was commanded by Aegidius, a Roman general.  It is even alleged that, when he was in rebellion against the imperial government in Ravenna, Aegidius used the title of rex francorum – King of the Franks.  Command over this force was evidently competed for by a Frank called Childeric, also later styled their king, and his son Clovis, and Aegidius and his son, Syagrius (later styled ‘King of the Romans’ by Gregory of Tours).  Clovis won out and was able to use this army and its control of the southern part of the Paris basin to subdue rival Frankish kings or leaders in the north and, eventually, defeat the Visigoths south of the Loire and cow the Burgundians of the Rhône valley and the Alamans, Thuringians and Saxons.  By the time of his probably untimely death in 511, Clovis was one of the two major powers in western Europe (the other being Theoderic the Ostrogoth) and, like Theoderic, evidently allowed himself to be called augustus.  Studying this course of events makes it very clear that warfare and politics in the fifth-century west was anything but the simple two-sided struggle between barbarian invaders and Roman defenders that the ‘moving front’ model envisages.  Sometimes the Franks were led by Romans; the Aquitanian senatorial aristocracy was in cahoots with the Visigoths throughout the period and an Auvergnat senatorial contingent fought for them against the Franks; and the Burgundians were closely associated with the senators of the Rhône valley.  Indeed, this picture, of warfare for control between regionally-based Romano-barbarian factions rather than between Romans and barbarians, applies throughout the western Empire in the fifth century – surprisingly even in the case of Vandal Africa. 

So, where does this leave us?  First of all, it tells us that if British politics between 400 and 600 did take the form of a ‘moving front’ war between Britons and Anglo-Saxons then it was unique: the only part of the western Empire where this sort of binary opposition occurred.  But our basis for that unique picture is entirely unreliable.  The late histories mentioned earlier all had reasons to portray the origins of their kingdoms or people in a simple story of invasion and conquest by one people at the expense of another.  Frankish origin stories saw their history in these terms too by the time our earliest insular history (Bede’s) was written and we have seen how wide of the mark this idea was.

Another issue of vital importance that emerges more clearly from the Gallic/Frankish evidence is that the rite of burial with grave-goods is not an imported barbarian custom, but begins inside the Roman Empire.  It is found in regions that underwent social competition, especially where a villa-based social system collapsed as in both northern Gaul and lowland Britain.  These graves, therefore, cannot be identified as the burials of Anglo-Saxons (or Franks) rather than of Romano-Britons (or Gallo-Romans).  This has the happy result of enabling us to see the weaponry in these graves not as exclusive to ‘Saxons’ but as very likely wielded by ‘Britons’ too.  The other feature that has emerged from recent scholarly work is just how fluid identities like ‘Saxon’, ‘Roman’, Frank’ or ‘Briton’ could be.  Evidence from the better-documented European mainland gives us numerous examples of people adopting new identities.  Families could shift their dominant ethnic identity over a generation or two.  We know, because our evidence is so much better, that very ‘Germanic’-looking people in seventh-century northern Gaul were actually the sons and grandsons of Roman aristocrats.

This also means that we need not see the known hillforts of the period as exclusively ‘British’.  Indeed, it is worth noting that the two pieces of diagnostically fifth-century metalwork found on the Cadbury excavations were of types usually (probably misleadingly) supposed to be Anglo-Saxon.

Implications for warfare
Clearly this discussion has huge implications for how we see warfare in fifth- and sixth-century Britain and permits an entirely different vision.  Frustratingly, it can never be filled in with precise details of people, places and events or be more than a hypothesis, but it does allow us to postulate a political and military history that is grounded in reliable, contemporary evidence and which better fits what we know of the fifth century more generally.

First of all, the political struggles for power in the lowlands of Britain were probably waged by different factions wherein Romano-British aristocrats were allied with particular groups of ‘barbarian’ soldiers.  The command of these factions was probably contested too, between different families and perhaps between rival groups of British or Saxon origin.  Although the group was probably identified by the ethnicity of the majority of (or the dominant group in) the army, we ought not to assume that all of the warriors were of that ethnic identity or origin.

Second, it may be that the key areas in this struggle, where English political dominance was first established, were on or near the coast.  The western band of the villa area, on the border with the highland zone (running from the Dorset coast to the East Riding of Yorkshire) was the most prosperous zone of late Roman Britain.  Note that the furnished burials suggestive of societal stress are rare in this region perhaps suggesting a greater degree of political stability.  This band was also the area where the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged (Wessex, Mercia and Deira) and this is unlikely to be coincidence.  Whoever controlled these areas could lord it over regions nearer the coast, including areas settled by incoming Anglo-Saxons.  This would resemble the pattern we saw in northern Gaul, and indeed the domination of the south-eastern coastal regions (East Anglia, Essex, Kent and Sussex) by the powerful ‘inland’ realms was the norm through most of the documented periods of Anglo-Saxon history.

Another feature that emerges from the study of the European mainland is just how fragile many kingdoms were.  Many evaporated after a single serious military defeat, leaving little trace.  The kingdoms of the Thuringians, the Vandals and the Burgundians were all extinguished in the 530s and would be entirely unknown to us if the documentary record was as exiguous as it is in Britain.  Syagrius, ‘king of the Romans’, who competed with Clovis for the control of the southern Paris basin and the Loire army, is known to history thanks only to his appearance in a lost saint’s life used by Gregory of Tours.  In this light it is clear that there is every scope for great war-leaders to have risen in Britannia, and for their kingdoms to have subsequently vanished, without leaving any trace.  Ambrosius Aurelianus may have been a mighty figure but, were it not for one comment in Gildas, he would be lost to history.  In this context there might equally well have been a successful war-leader or king called Artorius or Arthur.  If he fought against both Romano-British and Saxon rivals, and if his family or faction lost control of their realm or army to another group that was, or claimed, an Anglo-Saxon origin, he would have served no one’s historical purposes by the eighth century, when our narrative sources begin.  This would explain why he was barely remembered in any insular sources before the Norman conquest and why his story was evidently so little known.

What we have seen is that the factions involved in fighting for the control of what had been Britannia in the fifth century were probably a fluid mix of ‘Saxon’ and ‘Romano-British’.  It is worth remembering that the fourth-century Saxon homelands were very exposed to Roman influences and that many Saxons evidently served in the Roman army – as the official Roman belt-buckles and brooches that were cremated with them when they died testify.  Conversely, the Britons, like other provincials, were fully familiar with Saxon soldiers, and many probably fought alongside them in some of the late Roman army’s regiments.  This makes it extremely unlikely that there were drastic differences between the fighting styles of Romano-British and Saxons.  The idea that the Saxons always fought on foot – based in any case on a handful of late Anglo-Saxon references taken mostly out of context – is improbable.  The equipment from the famous bog-deposits in Denmark and northern Germany shows that warriors in that region were entirely familiar with mounted warfare.  It is most likely that, as across the early medieval West, élite warriors fought on horseback or on foot according to the needs of the situation.

The archaeological evidence from the lowlands, especially, suggests that warriors made much use of throwing weapons – in the late Roman tradition.  Throwing axes of the francisca type, heavy iron angones descended from the Roman pilum, and other throwing spears are known.  Analysis of the shields of the period suggests that they were smaller than later (although it may also be that they were taller and oval, rather than round).  There is some evidence of archery.  Sling-stones are known from the western hillforts but may equally belong to their earlier Iron Age occupation.  Armour and helmets are more or less unknown from the fifth and sixth centuries (all of the surviving examples are later) and swords are rare, but this probably stems simply from the fact that (unlike in some mainland areas) such items were not used in the funeral ritual rather than necessarily from a real scarcity or absence.  Warfare may, thus have been quite open and fast-moving with much use of missile weapons before the fight was decided in close fighting with sword and thrusting spear.

In Britain, as across the rest of Europe, archaeological and other evidence suggests that important changes took place in the decades around 600.  The practice of warfare was one of the things affected by these transformations.  It seems that fighting became larger in scale and more based upon the clash of the close-packed ‘shield-walls’ familiar from accounts of Viking warfare.  These changes buried the ‘world’ of Arthur, the historical details of any actual Arthur figure, and the type of warfare he may have engaged in for ever.

[1] I have used the terms Anglo-Saxon, Saxon and English interchangeably in this essay.