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Gender in the Merovingian World

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The poetics of politics: Transformations of public space in western Europe around 600

(This is a paper I gave at Durham a few weeks ago.  I had been trying to get back up to date on the archaeology of French towns, partly for the 'never-ending Year 600' project and partly because I perhaps needed to cover a chapter on towns for a forthcoming collective volume.  As it happened that chapter got delivered, and was better than I could have done anyway, so I wasn't called upon in the end, but it was still useful for me to do the work.  I have also been interested for some time in how the focus of politics changes between the sixth and seventh century, with the civitas capital losing its former centrality: a point that - I noticed recently - Simon Loseby had noted as long ago as 1997 (and quite probably other people had too).  All this gave me the excuse to try finally to put something together on the subject.  In the end, for various reasons, it ended up being a bit of a rush job and I think the paper is a bit of a dog's dinner in many ways.  Stitching the elements (about cities and about the social use of space and the scripting of politics) together meant that some ideas got lost in the process (especially about interpellation, in the Althusserian sense).  The last section is too brief and rushed, so a lot of stuff that interests me got lost anyway.  Anyway, here it is.  I present it as a crude, rough first sketch but I think there are ideas here that might be worth developing.)

  In my first book I said that trying to reconstruct urban life from the works of Gregory of Tours was like trying to reconstruct Tudor London from the props box of the Globe Theatre.In this paper I am coming back, after a long interval, to the Merovingian city and pursuing a different, and possibly no less tortured, dramatic metaphor.
What became of classical politics, in the very literal sense of the affairs of the polis, the city? The city, after all, remained the focus of politics throughout the Roman period.  While the municipal sphere had changed dramatically by the fourth century, it can’t be denied that the very form of the town continued to reify that of the Roman political system.  The late imperial period in the West sees, wherever one looks, urban contraction and abandonment to some extent but even in the far north-western imperial provinces the smallest and – by any classical standards – least impressive towns manifest their centrality to the Empire’s political system. 
An extreme case might be Bavay just on the French side of the modern Franco-Belgian border.  At some point around 300 (probably) the town was walled, but those walls, for whatever reason, enclosed no more than the forum of the early Roman town.  By 400 Bavay had lost its status as civitas­-capital of the Nervi to the then-scarcely-more-imposing town of Cambrai, but even so, even in its reduced size, it manifested the urban nature of the politics of the Dominate: a fortified administrative redoubt within which imperial revenues were collected, converted from kind to specie or vice versa; the seat of whatever officials resided there; the focus of the political activities of the Nervian aristocracy. Those aristocrats may have been as relatively unimpressive as their city: former (or current) imperial officials occupying or living off fiscal estates on short-term leases with a smattering of not very wealthy local landowners, mostly living in wooden, thatched- or shingle-rooved farmhouses, rather than the palatial-villa-dwelling Mediterranean grandees who might more readily come to mind when considering the late imperial aristocracy.  The general point, however, remains, mutatis mutandis, whichever town we might be talking about.  Politics, or the political, focused upon imperial service and imperial service remained centred on the town.  It was true in the sticks, at Bavay, and it was true at the heart of politics.  When it mattered Emperors were to be found in towns.  Indeed, even their villas could resemble bigger and more impressive ‘towns’ than poor little Bavay. Diocletian’s palace at Split is the obvious illustration.
Late imperial towns – even in contracting from their Flavian or Aelian heyday – were possibly more political than their predecessors.  The urban readjustments of the late Roman period appear to reflect the cities’ relative economic decline, as centres of markets and production.  Lesser settlements appear by then frequently to have rivalled them in those terms, which might explain some of the perceptible readjustments to the city network: the promotion of settlements like Verdun or Châlons-en-Champagne to the status of civitas-capital with territories hived off from the civitates of Metz and Reims respectively; the transfers of capital like that mentioned from Bavay to Cambrai or (in the civitas menapiorum) from Cassel to Tournai.  In the south, and at a slightly later date, Sidonius might have waxed lyrical about his villa and those of his friends, and sometimes decried the state of some local cities, but the latter were still, clearly, where politics happened.
That continued to be the case well into the next century.  Simon Loseby has set out, in a series of remarkable articles, the continued centrality of the civitas-capital to sixth-century Merovingian politics. Much the same lesson can be drawn from Michael Kulikowski’s studies of the city in late Roman and early Visigothic Spain and the picture is possibly truest of all in Italy, at least in the northern half to two thirds of the peninsula.  The city remained the focus of politics throughout the Lombard period.  And yet, as Loseby noted twenty years ago, something changed between the sixth and the seventh centuries.  The city lost its place as the focus of politics.
Or at least it did in Gaul.  I am going to talk about a peculiarly Gallic problem.  Or what seems to be.  I need to do more work on Spain to examine the extent to which a similar pattern can be traced there; as just noted, something very different appears to be the case in Italy.  Whether an analogous transformation occurred in Britain, or at least the extent to which similar factors could be adduced in forming a hypothetical account, remains to be considered.  The problem, as always, is that we lack the kinds of evidence that would give us a better idea about the earlier periods.  Whatever the case in Spain, Britain or Italy – even if they all turned out to be variations on the same theme – there are, I contend, some specifically Gallo-Frankish features to this process.
The late Roman Gallic town differed from its early Roman precursor in various ways, none of which was unique to Gaul.  They were walled from the late third century, in a probably rather longer process than used to be thought.  There was a huge reduction in private or municipal spending on public monuments, which probably best explains the usually short length of the walled circuits and the common incorporation of existing large monuments within the defences.  They contracted, to varying extents.  The walls certainly do not give a clear guide to the size and extent of the inhabited area, as was once believed, but rare indeed are towns where hitherto-inhabited, now extra-mural, quarters flourished as before.  Public buildings were frequently given over to new uses, often involving manufacture.  None of these features is unusual or specific to Gaul.  All can be observed in Rome itself. 
The other key development, obviously, was the appearance of Christian monuments.  By 400 all the civitas-capitals that had retained their status presumably had a cathedral, even if we know little about it.  As far as we know, such structures tended to be within the walled area; I am not sure that there are any indisputably extra-mural cathedrals in Gaul.  The Christian cult centre was thus incorporated in the same, small urban space as the foci for secular politics.  The phenomenon regularly visible in Italian towns, of a spatial reorientation from a previous civic centre around the forum to a plaza in front of the cathedral cannot therefore be seen very clearly in Gaul. 
Quite how secular politics functioned in spatial terms is not always clear.  As throughout the Empire, fora were often turned over to new purposes in whole or part, or encroached upon by new buildings, and many lay outside the new walled areas. Others, like those at Bavay and Paris, were fortified.  Some sides of Amiens’ forum were incorporated into the city’s defences.  This presumably did not diminish their importance but it must have changed the way in which the space was used.  It is possible that where amphitheatres were incorporated in walled circuits, as at Tours, Périgueux, Amiens, Metz and elsewhere, their arenas were used for public assembly.  The plausibility of this suggestion is perhaps strengthened by the importance of circuses and similar buildings in late imperial palace complexes, most famously at Constantinople.  Where such arenas were now extramural, they might still have functioned in the same way, as might derelict fora now left outside the enceinte.  It may seem logical to suppose that the spatial requirements for urban political gatherings were, in any case, less than before but I would not want to stress that possibility.  One of the key features of the Gallic city is the symbiotic relationship it had with the rural components of the civitas.  Villa-dwelling aristocrats were expected to come to town to participate in public life, however distasteful they claimed the latter was.  The other major possibility, of course, is the use for such gatherings of the interior of larger buildings, such as basilicae (where these had not been partitioned and given over to metalworking or similar, or – and this is will be important – the cathedrals.
The sixth-century Merovingian town continues most of these features. Secular occupation is increasingly difficult to find archaeologically, a feature that must partly be explained by its actual absence as well as, in part, by its ephemeral nature.  There is clear evidence of the further contraction and decay of the old Roman urban centres.  One or two towns in the far north might – like their British contemporaries – have died out entirely, at least as settlements that can meaningfully be described as urban.  Metz and even Trier have proven remarkably barren in terms of early Merovingian evidence, a fact of considerable interest given their secular political importance in the first and second halves of the sixth century respectively. Town walls were evidently not always maintained in a very good state. 
The other well-known component of sixth-century Gaulish urban development was the development of the Christian town.  If the cathedral seems to have been intra-mural, the overwhelming majority of urban churches were not. As foci for burial, they tended to be located in the earlier Roman cemeteries, outside the inhabited area.  Because of the contraction of the latter, these cemeteries could now be somewhat removed from the walled urban core.  To proceed from Tours cathedral, inside the walls, to Bishop Perpetuus’ new, mid-fifth-century church of St Martin, on the fringes of the early Roman town rather than in the cemeteries, is a ten to fifteen-minute walk, across a landscape that, in the sixth century, was a mix of vineyards, derelict areas, workshops and occasional dwellings. Around St Martin’s, though, was something like a new city.  Other churches and monasteries sprang up around that holding the famous bishop’s tomb.  As well as the clerics who tended these churches, the monks and nuns who lived there, there were the staff of these establishments and the people drawn in from the countryside for cures or to receive alms.  Vignettes in Gregory of Tours’ works suggest entertainers and merchants as well.  Thus while on the one hand we can see the continued stagnation of the traditional core of almost every Gallic city, on the other we can trace a sometimes vibrant peripheral community.  Sometimes, as at Tours and elsewhere (Limoges perhaps) a ‘bifocal’ town appeared, with an unwalled Christian town, sometimes called a vicus christianorum as well as the walled redoubt of the old Roman city.  Some towns (Trier; Lyon) were multi-focal.  In others, such as Metz, we might be able to detect a drift of settlement to certain extra-mural areas (in that case around the Great Amphitheatre).
The sixth-century Gallic city was primarily a Christian city, where it could be called a city at all, in anything other than the technical sense.  Through the fifth and sixth centuries, new churches were founded around the edges of the town, and new cults discovered.  The bishops played an increasingly important role in the towns.  Most jealously guarded two key privileges: baptism and preaching (Caesarius of Arles was very much an exception), meaning that Christians had to go to town for their principal spiritual needs.  The great cults were urban; most monasticism was city-focused.  Bishops organised great processions around the various churches of the city: the rogations first instituted at Vienne, the processions from the cathedral to St Martin’s at Tours, the great (three-day) excursion from Clermont to St Julian’s at Brioude, the procession mentioned by Gregory from the walled city to the church of St Remigius outside Metz, that across the Rhône bridge from Arles to Trinquetaille and the shrine of the martyr Genesius, and so on.  These were important social gatherings of the civitas’ inhabitants.  Bishops took over many other urban functions: feeding the poor, maintaining aqueducts and so on. 
All this is pretty well known.  Equally appreciated is the continuing centrality of the civitas in secular politics.  The city-districts were the building blocks of the sixth-century Merovingian kingdoms, forming the basis for tax collection and the levying of armed forces.  Each city – it seems – had its own count responsible for the administration of justice, the imposition of the royal dues and probably leading the civitas’ military contingent.  Some other urban institutions continued, even if we know little of them: the municipal archives, various officers such as the defensor civitatis.  Political competition between civitates was well-attested: sometimes armed conflict; rivalry over saints’ cults; even competing ways of counting the years.
After this descriptive preamble, we come to the focus of my paper: the construction of space and of the political.  Space is not neutral; it is, as Lefebvre said, constructed.  This is not merely a question of the enclosure or partition of spaces, even if these can play a very large part.  They act as cues to behaviour, to the bodily inhabiting of the space, in Bourdieu’s terms to the repeated bodily dispositions – the habitus – that construct categories.  A slightly, glib, simplistic and extreme example might be the physically often barely-delineated difference between road and pavement.  Even that, to continue being flippant, is somewhat more than merely an issue of not getting squashed, as anyone will know who appreciated the recent Daily Mash quiz that began by asking ‘Can you perform the relatively simple tasking of walking down a street without making other pedestrians want to punch you?’  Architecture provides cues; the entrance to a church, to take an obvious example, marks a point at which comportment, at which your bodily occupation of space is expected to change.  There are what Gernot Böhme calls ‘atmospheric architectures’, designed to enhance the nature and use of space.
Clearly, one does not need to go far to see antique and late antique illustrations of these points.  In earlier, classic Roman urban forms, crossing the pomerium provided a cue for different social expectations; the architecture of the forum marked a traveller’s arrival at the political, social and economic heart of the city.  Annabel Wharton’s studies of late classical towns documents shifts in the importance attached to open or ‘optic’ vistas of the urban space, to what she calls a more haptic space, more enclosed, experienced more through the act of passing through it.  The latter is especially true of churches but we can see other examples of the trend as perhaps at the palace of Galerius in Thessalonica.  Analysis of the church of St Martin’s and the various verses placed on its walls is a better illustration still of the ways in which various architectural components combined to influence a visitor’s comportment as he or she approached the tomb of the saint.  As Raymond Van Dam has argued, the architecture worked to impose a sense of awe that inhibited a pilgrim in venturing too close to the shrine unless she was convinced of her worthiness to do so: a key element in Van Dam’s ‘socio-somatic’ interpretation of healing miracles.  The same would obviously be true of the imperial palace and especially the great audience chambers, where the attendees were arranged by very tightly policed rules of status and precedence, and where comportment was of notable importance.  Even the emperor’s bodily comportment was a matter of significance and expectations could change from one setting to another.  In the Merovingian countryside, entrance into the cemetery, still largely removed from the space of the living, provided further cues, essential for the functioning of ritual.
Transposed into the realm of identity, such cues emphasis the question ‘what do they want of me?’ ‘How am I meant to behave?’  The use of space is vitally important in social interaction, as a means of attempting to freeze interactions between different social categories in particular modes.  Take, for example, a large Roman villa.  A visitor enters the complex, perhaps through a gate, after approaching via routes that present the building in a particular way.  Possibly after crossing the more functional ‘rustic’ part of the villa and perhaps going through a second gate, the visitor might cross a more enclosed courtyard, again with the main house as the focus of the gaze.  On entering the main building, the visitor enters a reception chamber, decorated with mosaics and wall-paintings depicting the ideals of rural aristocratic land-owning life.  If a client, or even if a guest of equal or superior standing, the setting emphasizes the expected, formal behaviour of host and visitor: the Latin word for host and guest is the same: hospes.  Both are bound – held hostage by – the rules of hospitality.
This is where the poetics of my pretentiously mock-Aristotelian title come in: the shaping – poesis – of reality, its staging, its scripting.  This helps freeze the interaction between categories of people within a certain, formal range, where people know the correct ways to behave and where transgression can be clearly recognised.  We are all aware of the awkwardness of meeting someone only known from a particular setting in a completely different context.
It is important to consider how the state operates spatially.  The whole space of the Roman Empire was subject to the operation of imperial law.  The Antonine Constitution, making all free inhabitants citizens, considerably simplified the hitherto complex overlapping and interlocking of different legal statuses, especially in relation to towns.  Location within the nested jurisdictions of the Late Empire made certain space into place.  The seat of a provincial governor, acting in his public capacity, within a public audience hall, bestowed a certain legality on his actions, within tight rules.  The occupant of such a spot acted to some extent in the place of the Emperor, as his vice-gerens, as made clear by various cues in the building itself.  Legitimation was brought, limits to it assigned (and acceptable behaviour constrained), by the office, not by the dignity of the individual who held it, although the imperial state recognised the problems that might go with that by assigning particular status to the holders of specific offices.  An official’s jurisdiction operated broadly uniformly within a defined territory.
How might these ideas have played out in a sixth-century urban context?  A key shift concerns the nature of the state and public space.  The Roman Empire, throughout its existence, was fairly clear about the nature of public space: space in other words where politics was enacted.  Book 15 of the Theodosian Code prescribes how such spaces were – ideally – to be maintained.  Quite how such theory related to practice in the contracted and remodelled cities of Gaul is, however, an intriguing problem.  Theodosian Code 15.1 contains over 50 rescripts concerning the maintenance of public buildings, frequently forbidding any privatisation of such space and decreeing that any private structures that encroached onto such spaces or sites be torn down.  And yet, in an interesting insight into of the efficacy of imperial law, two constants of late antique urban development are the dereliction of public buildings and the encroachment of buildings into public space.
There must have been considerable fluidity. What marked urban space in the last centuries of the western Empire: the old pomerium, or the new walls?  A possibly ruined or derelict arch or the new gateway?  Burials began to intrude into formerly inhabited zones, but rarely – except in Paris – in a dramatic way in Gaul, which suggests some confusion among contemporaries too.  We might recall the problem mentioned earlier, of where the public spaces were in the new towns.  Many must have been considerably smaller than in the early Roman period.  The ‘placette’ that, it has been suggested, might have been late Roman Tours’ replacement for the now extramural forum is smaller than the cathedral. 
I referred earlier to the absence of traces of high-status Merovingian occupation in towns, whether of kings or their aristocrats and officials.  This is a conundrum as we know these buildings existed.  Earlier Merovingian palace complexes evidently maintained the same key elements of late antique palaces: an audience chamber, a more general assembly area and a cathedral.  These elements can be seen clearly at Trier but also at Metz, where the Austrasian kings transferred their seat after the mid-sixth century.  It is possible that something similar existed at Soissons.  Frankish kings were still sometimes interested in providing spectacles for their subjects.  Gregory says that Chilperic wanted to provide circuses for the people at Paris and Soissons, though quite what was meant by that (aedificere) is anyone’s guess.  When Childebert II had an otherwise unknown aristocrat called Magnovald murdered at his court in Metz it was while he was watching bear-baiting, presumably in the small amphitheatre. 
One possible reason for the lack of archaeological evidence is that such buildings remained public and in continuous use, eradicating traces of occupation.  Another is that, simply enough, the Frankish rulers or their representatives did not invest significant resources in modifying or adding to them, but just maintained them.  As Simon Loseby once said in a sadly unpublished comment on Merovingian economic policy, the twin pillars of their attitude were ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and ‘if it is broke, forget about it’.  In this, their attitude seems typical of the earlier Merovingian elite, which seems to have spent very little on high-status buildings.  In the past I have argued that this was because of a lack of secure control over surplus and, while I think that that is correct of most of the sixth-century northern Gallic aristocracy, clearly it does not apply to the kings or, probably, to their most powerful service aristocrats.  In that case I think it probably illustrates a particular sixth-century Merovingian attitude towards wealth and its display. 
Of course, the one type of public building that the sixth-century Gallic elite certainly spent money on was churches.  The royal capital at Metz certainly had twenty-three, and possibly as many as thirty-three, churches by 700; it might have had eighteen a century earlier.  By the mid-eighth there were certainly forty-three churches in existence there.  If Metz’s status as a principal urban residence of the Merovingian kings made it exceptional, it was not by very much.  Le Mans had over twenty churches by the time that its bishop Bertram drew up his will in the early seventh century.  All this must have a significant bearing on the nature of public space and its relationship with political power.
Wealth was, however, above all worn in the sixth-century West.  Costume appears to have been even more important than it usually is in marking identity.  Analysis of northern Gaulish and other burial patterns appear to show that costume was one means by which social categories were created.  The wearing of particular forms and arrangements of jewellery marked out different stages of the female life-cycle.  The carrying of weaponry played a similar role among males, where (as with female costume) it might also have had an ethnic significance (provided that we’re clear about what we mean by ‘ethnic’ in this context).  Furthermore, it seems that all social classes followed these guidelines, differing only in the lavishness of their display.  Costume and other bodily markers apparently created the behavioural cues in social interaction. 
As I have argued before, the jewellery worn by younger and married women tended to highlight the parts of the body that were, in Frankish law, not to be touched without incurring penalty.  The cues on how to behave were now worn: costume created social space.  That is, I suggest, related to the general absence of the old, clearer, architectural markers of space.  In those terms, political space was much more fluid than before; it overflowed what had been its normal boundaries as the latter broke down.  This was doubtless particularly important in the processions that were mentioned above, which flowed from the city, through formerly urban space into what had been the city of the dead: now a place where, in Peter Brown’s classic analyses, heaven touched earth and where time stood still.  The limited evidence we have suggests that on these and similar occasions the population could be divided into various sub-groups, on ethnic or other lines.  Such arrangements doubtless underscored expectations about how the different social categories were expected to interrelate with each other.
It may be that assemblies in towns were still on occasion the site of traditional classical urban political displays.  On occasion at least, wills were still read out in the public spaces of the city.  Chilperic for example says that he will – in best Roman tradition – give the citizens of Tours a slogan to chant at Gregory. 
The Magnovald incident raises the point that, whatever behavioural cues there might have been in the imperial palace, they appear to have been significantly altered in sixth-century Gaul, to judge from Gregory’s accounts of things that happened in the various chambers of the court, including murders, tantrums and slanging matches.
A number of cautionary points must be made here. I am not assuming that the socio-political boundary markers, architectural or bodily, are automatically effective; that they cannot permanently freeze a set of attitudes – the habitus – in a given mode is elementary: Bourdieu 101.  They are in a constant state of renegotiation.  Further, one might wonder whether the infractions – the, by Roman norms, bizarre behaviour – are recorded by Gregory because of their significance or unusualness.  That must in part be the case, but there do seem to be an awful lot of them, when you remember that the bulk, the last six books, of Gregory’s Histories covers only 16 years.  Part of the problem must be related to the fact of living – from the middle of the sixth century – in a post-Roman world, where the political itself, the forms of rulership and authority of all sorts, was in the process of reinvention.
When gatherings did not take place outside, it might be that another element of post-Roman confusion entered the equation.  As is well-known, much late antique ecclesiastical architecture followed the example of imperial secular building, notably the great audience chambers.  Obviously, the classic basilical church plan was based upon the great assembly halls – basilicas – of the civic forum and the imperial palace.  Most discussion of which I am aware points out how the altar in the raised apsidal end occupies the space of the imperial throne, or the portrait or statue of the emperor, in straightforward and unproblematic manner.  What I am not aware of is any discussion of the element of semiotic confusion that could be introduced at a time when both secular and ecclesiastical authorities were using the same spatial arrangements in buildings of essentially identical layout, at the same time.  One need not think that late antique people had no idea what to do when going into an imperial or royal audience hall on the one hand, or a church on the other, to wonder whether the varying hierarchies set out in identical spaces did not produce changes in the political script for which the architecture provided cues.  Sometimes the king or emperor – or his image and his representative – occupied the focal space and ecclesiastical as well as secular aristocrats were expected to approach only with deference; sometimes the altar, the image of Christ, and his representative took that position and even emperors and kings were supposed to approach with humility. 
Caesarius’ sermons to the people suggest that the inhabitants of Arles did not always read the spatial behavioural cues of church architecture as assiduously as their bishop thought they ought to: lying down, plaiting their daughters’ hair, fixing their jewellery, chattering away, making a break for the doors when Caesarius got up to give his sermon (only to find that Caesarius, in a shocking infraction of basic health and safety guidelines, had had them locked from the outside).  Was this typical?  Did Caesarius simply lift it from Augustine?  Was it a general problem or only at various points of the liturgy?  Gallican liturgy included a point where the deacon asked the people to be quiet, just before the sermon.  Did such behavior spread from the cathedral to the royal court?  What happened when the person occupying the place of the emperor in a secular court could no longer make a legitimate claim to be the emperor’s representative, or to have imperial legitimation for his position?  Was it worse when they occupied actual former imperial space like the aula palatina at Trier?
Sometimes the confusion was only emphasized by the principal actors.  In Book 7 chapter 7 of Gregory’s Histories, King Guntramn addresses the people of Paris in church.  Gregory says he did this ‘after the deacon had asked the people to be quiet’, and thus at the very point when the bishop was meant to speak.  It wasn’t the only time that Guntramn was described by Gregory as acting ‘like one of the bishops of the Lord’.  Quite what Gregory thought of this is difficult to unravel; he does not seem to me to have thought that it was a straightforwardly Good Thing.  It might be though that there was a lot of that in the air in the late sixth century, quite possibly as a result of the renegotiating of the bases of monarchical power after Justinian launched his wars of ‘reconquest’.  When Guntramn presided over a meeting of his bishops at Chalon-sur-Saône, the preamble he issued makes clear – a decade or so before Gregory the Great wrote the Pastoral Care – that he viewed kingship as a ministry.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the Cathedral could be the location for dramatic confrontation.  Gregory’s account of the career of Nicetius of Trier highlights several occasions when the prelate came into conflict with the kings of Austrasia, haranguing them from the pulpit.  Gregory has Chilperic I lament “Behold how poor our fisc is! Behold how our wealth has been transferred to the churches! Really, no one rules other than the bishops. Our honour will perish; it has been transferred to the bishops of the cities.”  Whether or not Chilperic really did ‘often’ say this – or even think it – is impossible to know, but it wasn’t a bad diagnosis of the way things were going. 
Paul Fouracre has pointed out that the killing of bishops was much more common in Merovingian Gaul than anywhere else in the post-imperial West, a phenomenon for which he did not have a ready explanation.  The domination of cities by bishops might nevertheless be an important factor.  The domination of the Church by the senatorial aristocracy from the fifth century onwards is also a peculiarly Gallic phenomenon, that illustrates the importance of the bishop in local and regional politics.  In northern Gaul at least, the bishop was also generally the winner in power-struggles with the local comes civitatis. 
As if this weren’t enough, and possibly also explaining the greater tendency to kill bishops in the regnum Francorum, the Gallic episcopate appears to have taken up with more relish than most the tradition of speaking truth to their secular overlords.  Nicetius of Trier is a particular example, drawing on strong local, Treverian traditions going back to the fourth century, but he was far from alone.  Gregory of Tours himself thought that the duty of bishops to speak out against the actions of kings and keep them on the straight and narrow was especially important.  There are plenty of other examples: Germanus of Paris; Salvius of Albi.  In the early sixth century the entire Burgundian episcopacy went on strike to protest one of King Sigismund’s actions.  It may be significant in these regards that the Anglo-Saxon bishop with the most awkward reputation, Wilfred of Ripon was educated, and chose to be consecrated, in Gaul, and that the only time (surprisingly enough) anyone actually tried to kill him was also in Gaul (though they got the wrong man).
For all of the reasons that I have just set out, I have suggested that the Merovingian kings of Austrasia abandoned their attempts to take over the former imperial capital at Trier and moved to Metz.  Metz had the correct architectural furnishings for a palace complex, but it was not overburdened either by a ghostly imperial presence or by an awkward episcopal tradition.  Unsurprisingly, the kings appear to have kept a tight rein on appointments to the see of Metz throughout the period.  The bishops we know about, even Saint Arnulf, were all former palatine officials whom the kings felt they could trust.  On occasion they might even have been their relatives.
Nonetheless there remained some crucial features.  The count governed the territory of the civitas and exacted taxation and other dues from it, moderated by some exemptions concerning certain duties, and administered the law throughout it, either personally or via his officers, such as the centenarii or hundredsmen.  The title remained an office, appointed by the king, which could be withdrawn: it was neither a job for life nor a hereditary title.  Thus, wherever the count was, in a sense, the authority of the king – the presence of the state – was too.  The count’s court and the hundred mallus might move around but they retained their place, within the nested jurisdictions of the sixth-century state.  This surely remained important even in the fluid and somewhat ambiguous political space of the day. 
Taken together, these factors go a long way towards explaining why the city had lost its place at the centre of Gallic politics from the second decade of the seventh century.  This is an especially peculiar phenomenon given that it was at this time that a more general urban recovery appears to have begun in northern Gaul, and the decline of southern towns does not appear to have really begun until much later in the century at least.
The city lost out to two other territorial units during the seventh century.  On the one hand civitas-identity appears to be replaced by a broader regional, kingdom-based identity.  Changes in ethnic identity might also have had an effect.  At a lower level, the sub-division of the civitas, the pagus became much more important.  Individuals are identified by their pagus of origin, for example, and the pagi acquire their own counts.  The direction in which things were moving is perhaps very clearly indicated by Fredegar’s account of the territorial straits to which Chlothar II was reduced by his cousins, Theudebert II and Theuderic II.  He says that his authority was confined to twelve pagi, rather than three civitates as one assumes Gregory would have said.
The secular political decline of the civitas might be linked to the demise of the royal dues that had been extracted on the basis of the city network.  Frankish taxation certainly went into terminal decline in the early seventh century, with – in my reading – salaries hitherto paid via the delegation of tax-revenues from specific tax-payers extended to ownership of the lands from which those taxes were collected, as well as by increasing grants of immunity. Military organisation by civitas also ended.  The last mention of a civitas contingent in battle is the account of the treachery of the men of Mainz in Sigibert III’s 636 Thuringian campaign.  That same account, however, also refers to a contingent from the Saintois, one of the pagi of the civitas of Toul.  In any case, the army appears to have been made up much more of aristocratic households or retinues rather than raised by general levies of Franks, commanded by royal officers.  Immunities were also exempted from the usual levying of military service.  Counties proliferated and, even if not technically inheritable, seem much more to have passed down within families.
The increasing numbers of charters show that public legal gatherings could took place in local churches and at or in the villae of particular landowners. They do not suggest that the city retained its importance in that sense, in the north at least.  Charters signed at gatherings in old Roman cities tend unsurprisingly to be those involving the bishop.  The great rural monasteries founded in the seventh century also drew from attention away from the cities as central places and the foci of political action, not least because many were the centres of immunities, from episcopal as well as royal control. 
In the seventh century, the Frankish kings are much more likely to found on their rural estates than in the old cities.  The majority of royal assemblies took place there, including church assemblies, as at Clichy in the 620s.  Another location was the great royal abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris.  The kings still held gatherings at cities especially in Burgundy, just as they had held important gatherings at their villas in the sixth century, but the ratio seems to me to have shifted dramatically in the direction of the countryside.
The city had lost its place.  Urban Politics were now very much scripted by the bishops.  The space of the state was increasingly perforated and fragmented as the early Merovingian state broke down so that the town’s administrative role was greatly reduced anyway.  The stage for politics passed to various places in the countryside: royal and aristocratic villas, monasteries, and the elite spent their now more secure resources on these centres, especially from the middle of the seventh century.  How the immunity impacts upon the space of the political, as an interstice within the areas of operation of royal and episcopal power, a zone of exception, is an interesting issue, but one which alas I have no time to discuss.  How did cues for behaviour change in this different seventh-century world.  To what extent did the private permeate the public?  Some of the incidents that took place at royal gatherings in the seventh century certainly suggest a different scripting from before.  Paying more attention to that constitute the other half of this project (not, fortunately, this paper) and perhaps we can discuss that.
Public space and its use had evolved significantly through the Roman and immediately post-imperial period.  But in many ways the rules of the dramas that unfolded there remained within a Roman tradition – even if an observer who teleported from the second century to the early sixth might have had no idea whether he was watching a tragedy or a comedy.  As in so many things, though, the crisis of the mid-sixth century and especially Justinian’s wars and their attendant ideology brought abut a radical rescripting.  Kings and their officers were no longer able to play the parts that they had hitherto known off by heart.  They needed to ad lib and to find new theatres in new locations.  Unsurprisingly, as the one character whose part in urban dramas remained unchanged from the late Roman period, the bishop remained alone on the stage.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

History: Faith and doubt

[Here is a very rough draft of a section of the book I am - supposedly - writing about the philosophy of history, Why History Doesn't Matter, which has run into the sands somewhat of late.  In this chapter I am trying to explore the fact that there is a core of doubt in all historical endeavour, which can only be (and then only provisionally) be bypassed through an act of faith, and then (not in this section) that that act of faith presupposes an ineluctable, impossible and universal ethical demand that lies at the heart of the historical project.  Conformance to that ethical demand provides a political foundation for critique of historical writing.  Anyway, here is the first tottering step...]

Much of the argument of this book depends upon a theological-looking combination of two concepts: faith and doubt.  The proposition is that there remain kernels of doubt at the heart of systems of meaning, which cannot be bypassed other than through acts of faith, themselves often linked to the historical and geographical context in which they are made.  This idea is often assumed to represent an invitation to compete relativism: a step towards the notion that any interpretation is ultimately only as good as any other.  I do not intend to go into that issue in detail, other than to say that it is a complete misrepresentation, usually based upon an unwillingness to consider, engage with or even read, the ideas in question.  It was partly because of this that it was necessary for me to begin with a defence of method and critical rigour.

My contention is that the historian proceeds with her enquiry, at all sorts of stages and levels, through an inextricable combination of faith (or commitment) and doubt.  Perhaps predictably, I want to use René Descartes’ thought-experiment, set out in his Meditations, as a way of illustrating this.  The experiment itself is well known.  Sitting in his room by the fire, Descartes ponders how it is that he can be sure that the world of his perception is as it seems.  Assuming that he is neither dreaming nor mad,[i] how can he nevertheless establish that everything that he senses is not a huge trick or deception played upon him by an Evil Demon?  Eventually, by the end of the second Meditation, Descartes reaches the conclusion that, whatever he might doubt of his sensory perception, if he is pondering this issue he himself must exist (cogito ergo sum; je pense donc je suis; I think therefore I am: the phrase itself comes from the Discourse on Method) or, perhaps more accurately, that, since there is an ‘I’ that is thinking, the subject ‘I’ must itself exist.  This is all fairly well-known; less frequently remembered is the fact that Descartes reached the cogito en route to an attempted proof of the existence of God.[ii]  In fact, contrary to usual perceptions of ‘Cartesian doubt’, Descartes begins not from a position of complete scepticism but rather from one of faith:

However, there is a certain opinion long fixed in my mind that there is a God who is all-powerful, and by whom I have been created such as I am now. …[N]or shall I ever break the habit of assenting to them [i.e. Descartes’ long-held beliefs] and relying on them, as long as I go on supposing them to be such as they are in truth, that is to say doubtful indeed in some respect, as has been shown just now, and yet nonetheless highly probable, so that it is much more rational to believe than to deny them.  Hence it seems to me that I shall not be acting unwisely if, willing to believe the contrary, I deceive myself and make believe, for some considerable time, that they are altogether false and imaginary until, once the prior judgements on each side have been evenly balanced ion the scales, no evil custom can any longer twist my judgement from the correct perception of things. …
I will therefore suppose that, not God, who is perfectly good and the source of truth, but some evil spirit supremely powerful and cunning, has devoted all his efforts to deceiving me. I will think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds, and all external things are no different from the illusions of our dreams and that they are traps he has laid for my credulity.[iii] (My italics)

Descartes’ experiment is, thus, to attempt to establish the veracity of things that he has heard and in which he has always believed.  More importantly, he his enquiry begins from a fixed position: that there is a good god who would not deceive him.  This, clearly, is incapable of empirical verification; it is purely a matter of faith.  It remains, nonetheless, the point which enables his thought experiment to proceed. 

Staying with Descartes, we can move to another, more famous concept associated with him, albeit with less precision: Cartesian coordinates.  The system relies upon the use of two or more axes proceeding from a point of origin, that enables the mapping of an area or space and the establishment of the relative positioning of objects or places within it.  For Descartes, this permitted the representation of geometry in algebraic terms.  It remains fundamental to cartography and forms an entirely coherent system with predictive and verifiable value … provided, of course, that you accept its conceptual starting points, which, as with that of Descartes’ thought experiment, are pragmatic and provisional rather than absolute.  For one thing, its conception of space is Euclidean or, to put it crudely, operates around the notion of flat and perpendicular planes.  Since the nineteenth century it has been recognised that, while Euclidean and thus Cartesian geometry is perfectly acceptable for all kinds of purposes, especially as a starting point, it has crucial practical and theoretical flaws, which I have neither the space nor the competence to describe.  Second, the system of coordinates relies upon the concept of zero as an integer and thus the notion that the difference (or distance) between 0 and 1 is the same as that between 1 and 2 or between -1 and -2.  Again, in practice that is unobjectionable but it was impossible before the introduction of that concept of zero.  In classical and medieval Europe, the difference between one and ‘one minus one’ was infinite: it was the difference between presence and absence, between something and nothing.  That was essential for Zeno’s paradox, for example.  Third, in most cartography the location of the point of origin or zero is purely arbitrary or conventional, like the use of the Greenwich Meridian.  Descartes’ acceptance of the truth of an eternally good God, or the various suppositions underlying Cartesian geometry, are precisely the things that Jacques Derrida labelled aporias: points where empirical observation or verification fails but which are nevertheless essential to the coherence or progression of an argument.

This admittedly superficial detour yields several points that are vital to my argument.  Entirely coherent systems, even ones with enormous scientific and logical value, begin around points that are established not empirically but pragmatically or provisionally, or through faith.  Sometimes their acceptance is a matter of sincerely-held belief (as with Descartes’ concept of God); sometimes those who employ a system are more or less aware of its non-empirical foundations.  In practice, there is no difference between Descartes’ belief in the good God as the starting point for his logic and an eighteenth-century geometrician’s acceptance of the Euclidean and other assumptions behind Cartesian coordinates. Indeed, there is no practical difference between our eighteenth-century mathematician’s conviction about the foundations of the Cartesian system and a modern mathematics teacher’s pragmatic acceptance of them for the purposes of explanation.  I am by no means equating the objects, or the nature, of faith in my three examples but they can nevertheless all be said to be founded upon matters of belief. 

More importantly, given the frequent perception of so-called ‘postmodernism’, unpicking those foundational concepts and showing the empirical failure that lies at their heart does not result in absolute anarchy.  It does not mean that ‘anything goes’.  Quite apart from the ideas that follow from Descartes’ acceptance of a benevolent deity as the starting point of his thought, philosophers have long debated whether the ‘I’ of the cogito provides as secure a basis for his further argument as Descartes imagined.[iv]  Identifying those aporias does not however, authorise us – on that basis alone – to develop any particular stage of the Meditations’ argument in any direction we like.  It does not permit us to identify every step of the Meditations’ argument as illogical, or to claim that Descartes said things that cannot be observed in his writings, or to use it as the basis for arguments that do not proceed from his writings.  Even when considering things that Descartes did not say but seems to have assumed or those which he left unsaid, an argument can only proceed via careful, empirical scrutiny of the text itself.  It needs to be repeated that Derrida’s own philosophy rested on close, empirical, microscopic even, readings of the authors in question: Rousseau, Austin, Marx or whoever. Similarly, recognising that the Greenwich Meridian is a purely conventional starting point for longitudinal measurement, that it was chosen for very specific and contingent reasons, does not enable one to postulate that Edinburgh and London stand in an entirely different geographical relationship, or to deny that the system provides practical measurements between points on the earth’s surface.  It does not justify anyone’s belief in a flat earth, or that the earth is a disc carried by elephants.  It does not – in any way – deny the concepts and procedures of scientific verification.  Nor, indeed, does it imply anything at all that is un-, let alone anti-scientific.  What, one might ask, has driven scientific research if not the on-going desire to question and unpick the aporias of previous generations’ thinking?  This is not a matter of a radical doubt or unbelief.  I would argue that it manifests an ongoing fidelity to the notion that there is something out there that is capable of systematic explanation.  The fact that the existence and origins of such a system have yet to be empirically established, if indeed they are ever capable of such a complete account, is why there is no logical contradiction between faith and science; why many rigorous ‘hard scientists’ are, for example, committed Christians.[v]

The point or the consequence of Derridian deconstruction is not complete relativism, or indeed relativism of any sort, but simply to expose the foundational cores of undecidability that exist within all systems of meaning.  It does not aim at the pulling apart and destruction of systems (this is an egregious misuse of the term deconstruction); rather, deconstruction troubles or unsettles them. It exposes the fact that such systems are not self-contained, self-present truths, helps us understand how this is the case and how they are interrogated.  Deconstruction is therefore neither as irrational, unrigorous, unscientific or nihilistic as its often quite hysterical opponents claim nor as radical and revolutionary as some of its proponents have been wont to imply.

The acceptance of the existence of points where doubt never be entirely negated is in no way disabling for historical research.  For over two centuries, English Law has functioned on the basis of the pragmatic concept of ‘reasonable doubt’.  For a defendant to be proved guilty the prosecution must present evidence and present a case that satisfies a jury, not beyond all doubt, but beyond reasonable doubt.  In the late eighteenth century, English jurists realised that a requirement, bolstered by religious sanction, for the accused to be proven guilty beyond doubt was hindering juries and judges from reaching verdicts.  The distinction between absolute doubt and reasonable doubt is that which (usually) renders law practicable. It is also, I suggest, that which permits historical analysis to proceed to argumentation and conclusions.   Sometimes the scope for reasonable doubt is, as with major political historical events, non-existent.  That does not negate the point that doubt is an integral component of the historian’s engagement with the evidence or that in practice some level of doubt can never be resolved other than through a form of faith. 

[i] Foucault and Derrida.

[ii] S. Blackburn, Think!

[iii] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 21-22

[iv] References

[v] In this sense and others, Richard Dawkins has done atheists and scientists enormous disservice.