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Thursday, 27 May 2010

The End of the Late Antique State in the West

This is the text of a paper I gave last night (26 May) to the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where I'm currently a Nominated Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).

1: Introduction

This paper is a short overview of the project which I am working on at the moment, provisionally entitled, in a shameless rip-off of the title of Guy Bois’ controversial book on the Year 1000, ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’. The aim is not, as was Bois’, to argue for a point at which the ancient world became the medieval world. These sorts of ‘X marks the spot’ debates very quickly become sterile, as indeed that on the Year 1000 has, in becoming a shouting match between people who think that everything changed at precisely that point and those who think that nothing much happened at all. My own view, long argued, is that change – not slow barely perceptible transformation, but significant and dramatic change – was something that happened pretty regularly in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless the period encompassing the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh does seem to have seen some especially significant restructurings and other transformations. This era is well-known as an epoch of change in Byzantine history but its significance is far less widely appreciated in western European history, possibly because, while historians of the eastern Mediterranean still have an imperial Roman/Byzantine master narrative to unify their efforts, after 476 the history of western Europe is fractured by many different national historiographies with their own grand narratives.

I am going to give something of a whistle-stop overview of some of the issues involved in my project, organised around a unifying theme of ‘the end of the late antique state in the West’. This, thrown together in some haste, will be superficial and fragmented but with luck that might provoke some discussion and provide me with some helpful pointers and corrections.

When I speak of the end of the late antique state, I am not speaking simply of the demise of a particular ideal sub-type but of the end of anything that can reasonably be called a state with any analytical precision. This is historiographically unfashionable. It has become normal for people to talk about ‘the state’ in early medieval Europe. This in some ways is the outgrowth of a long tradition. In days of yore the post-imperial world was seen as experiencing a collapse into anarchy. In that context people discussed things like ‘blood-feud’ which were supposed to have existed as ‘self-help mechanisms’ in a stateless world – supposed to have existed at all, some would say – the rise of ‘feudalism’ was seen as a response to untrammelled violence and disorder. The move away from these historical myths has entailed the rise of another; that of the early medieval state. This has owed no small amount to the rise of what is called the ‘consensus model’ of early medieval politics, which argues that political negotiation and the use of royal ritual created the consensus necessary to keep aristocrats in league with the kings and to get anything done. This, for sure, has shown us that cohesive kingdoms existed in the early Middle Ages and this has been elided into the idea that therefore such polities were states. Indeed in 2003 someone called Halsall published a book about Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, which talked willy-nilly about coherent kingdoms as ‘states’. But cohesion, to me, does not equate with statehood. A polity whose rulers do not tax and thus have no income derived other than from their position as simply one élite landholder among many, and who have no effective independent coercive force, cannot, in my vaguely Weberian view, be called a state. Proper states – as I hope to demonstrate and, with less likelihood, explain – came to an end in the West (however temporarily) around 600.

2: The decline of state apparatus
A number of themes run through western European political and social history in this period, centring in my view – at least in Europe north and or East of the Alps and Pyrenees – on a growth in the importance, and a crucial change in the nature, of the regional aristocracy. There might be something of a chicken-and-egg relationship between the growth of aristocratic power and the crucial decline of the old state apparatus but, for reasons that might become apparent later, it seems best, at least provisionally, to talk about the latter first and then move on to other evidence for the increase in aristocratic authority in the localities.

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

Nonetheless, Goffart’s 1982 position was unobjectionable, especially in its contestation that taxation itself withered around 600 in Gaul. If there was any post-imperial taxation in Britain, and there’s really no good reason to suppose that there wasn’t, then similarly, by the time one gets to the earliest surviving written data, forms of revenue have clearly followed the same path, with more or less the same survivals, as in Gaul. The same seems to be true in the north of Italy in the Lombard kingdom, although we could hardly claim to be well-served by relevant evidence. Paul the Deacon’s story about the distribution of the northern Italian Roman population among the Lombards as tributarii might be an index that taxation was still in operation or it could be a sign that Italy was already seeing a development in the nature of military service that is better documented in Gaul very slightly later. Given the political circumstances, the latter may well be preferable. Similarly, as far as I know, it seems to be the case that taxation had atrophied in Spain by the seventh century, although this is very much an area where I need to do more work.

Given that taxation withered precisely when something of an economic revival took place in north-western Europe, including the reintroduction of coinage, explaining this change means dealing with more than the practical difficulties of collecting revenue in kind.

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

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

As far as the Frankish kingdoms are concerned this means of raising an army had more or less completely eroded by the middle of the seventh century. By that date it seems pretty clear that armies are now being raised from aristocrats and their clienteles. Instead of being described as drawn from particular administrative units, civitates, the elements of Frankish armies start being described as scarae –shearings off – and the implication seems to be that although the idea of military service as a general obligation had far from disappeared, it was now heavily moderated by ties of dependence and lordship. The description of an army campaigning in Burgundy from about a century later sums up the new situation ‘a multitude of magnates and a great band of their followers’ (multitudine primatum et agminum satellitum plurimorum; Fred. Cont., 24). A similar process towards an army with aristocratic retinues has been identified in Gothic Spain and at this date Anglo-Saxon armies seem to be broadly similar (indeed the military history of Anglo-Saxon England runs along a very similar course to that of early medieval Francia). The heads of these bands do not seem to command simply by virtue of royal office, as had been the case in the sixth century, but from their socio-economic standing. I’ll return to this.

It is I think no coincidence that it is at about this time that immunities are documented much more often, in forms that apply to aristocratic or church estates. Kings envisaged areas into which their officers could not enter unbidden, either to collect revenue or, it would seem from the inclusion of the haribann in the list of things they weren’t allowed to collect, enforce military service.

Thus, by way of concluding this section, one can argue that the aristocracy, had managed to interpose itself effectively between the kings or the central government and the local population, in the extraction of surplus and the raising of armed forces. Now, it is clear that this did not affect the cohesion – or at least the basic unity – of the western kingdoms, north or south of the Pyrenees, for different reasons, but it does equally make it clear that the ability of whoever controlled the centre of the realm had a markedly lesser ability to enforce his writ in the locales of the kingdom and this, in itself, would, for me, signal the end of the state in the late antique West.

3. Social developments
What I want to do now is look at the problem from a different angle; from the perspective of local society and economy. I am going to do this by looking at north-western and Mediterranean Europe in turn because, as in the fifth and sixth centuries, as I discussed in Barbarian Migrations…, there are important differences between the two zones. I will say far more about the north-west because it is the area I have done way more work on, especially in Gaul. Gaul between the Loire and the Alps and Pyrenees will stand somewhere between the two.

The North: If one looks at the settlement pattern it is quite clear that the late sixth century marks an important phase. In England and in northern Gaul/Francia similar transformations are observable in rural settlements. In France this phase has been described by Édith Peytremann as marking a crucial rupture with the tradition of late antiquity; villas had long gone but it seems quite clear that settlement had nevertheless carried on within the general outlines of the late Roman pattern – this is in many ways a useful metaphor for the late fifth and sixth centuries in the West as I see them. There is a significant expansion of settlements and the sites known to us are more archaeologically significant. Some sites of this phase show far more investment in buildings that are differentiated from the norm. In association with this there seems in Gaul to be a reorganisation of the landscape, with new boundaries and so on. By the seventh century too there is much more evidence of craft specialisation and manufacture within settlements and some settlements also appear to have been specialised in their economic focus. Generally this is a feature which one sees more often from the later seventh century but one begins to see attested settlements which are based around cereal farming to a much greater degree, something plausibly associated with an increase in aristocratic estate organisation.

Simultaneously, there is a major shift in the nature of the burial rite in these areas, which takes very similar forms in northern Gaul and in Anglo-Saxon England, as well as to the east of the Rhine – all of which must make the usual ascription of the English developments to conversion deeply questionable. In brief, the changes take the following form: a reduction in the numbers of grave-goods; a simplification of the types of grave-goods deposited; the reduction of gender-related object-types, especially feminine ones. In Gaul, the characteristic organisation of sites by rows breaks down – as far as I can see this sort of change is not as clear in other areas. There is, around 600 itself, a flurry of lavishly furnished élite burials on the fringes of Frankish power, fringes in which I would include Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, a phase when standing in local society is demonstrated much less subtly than had been the case before. This phase also includes the removal of the burials of families of high standing to separate areas within the cemetery as well as their marking by above ground monuments. Indeed the investment in the transient display of grave-goods is significantly reduced when compared with that in above ground markers, not just gravestones and inscriptions but stone sarcophagi with lids at surface level, walls around groups of graves and so on. The ultimate expression of the trend is the funerary church, which begins to appear in the rural areas of the north of Gaul by the middle of the century. Cemeteries in the seventh century are also far more numerous, if smaller than their precursors, possibly matching the expansion of settlements, possibly also indicating the break-up of earlier ‘burial communities’.

That security is probably also manifested in the increase in craft-specialisation that is attested at this time, in changes in artefact forms, in the revival of organised stone-working and transport, and in an economic upsurge. The early seventh century is well-known as the period of the origins of the emporia around the North Sea in England and on the mainland, but it is similarly the period when northern Gallic towns begin to revive from the stagnation of the fifth and sixth centuries and – in Gaul – from a decline that had set in as early as the third century. As well as North Sea trade, The seventh century is a period when church foundations in towns really take off: earlier than in the countryside. This is also the era when coinage begins to be minted again after a hiatus of about a century and a half.

All of these changes, when compared with the late fifth- and sixth-century situation, suggest an élite that was far more secure in its local standing than had hitherto been the case, one with a far greater control of surplus and thus better able to sponsor craft-specialisation, manufacture and urban renewal, and found monasteries. This security of position is, furthermore, I think behind the fact that legal and other administrative documents begin to be more regularly kept from the end of the sixth century onwards.

In southern Gaul these changes are more subtle as, in general, the late antique model survives there until perhaps the end of the seventh century. Villas continue to be occupied and towns, as far as I can see, remain much the same. There do seem to be some transformations related to the shift in trading patterns, and perhaps some economic decline. This is seen clearly at Marseille but then Marseille was always unusual and maybe to be seen as a part of the southern, Mediterranean sphere and thus affected by the demise of the old Mediterranean trade networks. On the other hand, a trade network is established between the west coast of France and the Irish Sea – now reaching both of its shores and further north than earlier. There are no real shifts in the social structure that I have seen. The aristocracy appears on the whole to have become more like that in the north, a general levelling out of the regional differences that had existed in the sixth century.

The South: In Spain and in Italy, by contrast, the period seems to be remarkable mainly for the end of the old Roman villa system, which had been in decline since the start of the fifth century but which had nevertheless survived far better than it had done further north, before taking a real beating in the mid-sixth century and fizzling out by its end. The seventh century in the Mediterranean is an area I have still to explore in any depth. Nonetheless what does seem clear is the decline of the Mediterranean trade networks of the late Roman period. This might very well affect the coastal cities of Spain detrimentally but even in the late Roman period the hinterland of Spain had been economically separate from the coast so one ought to expect some differentiation. What one can see nevertheless is the end of the region’s TSHT finewares and some important shifts, as elsewhere, in the nature of material culture which, ironically given what was just said about trade routes, are generally said to show more Byzantine influence, and the end of the old supposedly Gothic material culture of the sixth century. At the same time the rite of furnished inhumation spreads within Spain, having hitherto been something of a peripheral phenomenon. When taken with economic decline, the end of villas and so on, I think we have to explore the possibility of some significant social change more akin to that which took place further north in the fifth century, a weakening of social structure. This might explain the continued existence of an extensive but fragile polity in the peninsula. I would not want to push that too far but it seems to me that as early medieval Spanish archaeological data increase in quantity and quality we might need to nuance our received pictures of the Spanish Gothic nobility, based as they are on not over-plentiful written sources, something which might perhaps allow us a new insight into the old debate about the strength or otherwise of the later Gothic kingdom.

Some similar points might be made for Italy, another area which I have yet to explore in any detail. The transformations in the nature of the Romano-Byzantine élite have been well documented by Tom Brown. Further north there are the same sorts of changes in the settlement pattern that I have mentioned in Spain. Similarly too there is the spread of furnished inhumation, still too crudely associated with Lombard ethnic identity. It seems pretty clear that there was major change in the social structures of the Po valley and elsewhere. What is needed is a more subtle and locally or regionally focussed consideration. On the whole, as in Spain but probably to a far greater degree, Italy was experiencing a crisis similar to that of the fifth-century north-west, even if it never reached quite that degree of seriousness.

Generally speaking, though, the sort of repeated evidential ‘contour lines’ that I discussed in Barbarian Migrations continue to be visible. That is to say that the distribution of written sources tends to match the distribution of prosperity in the urban and rural settlement patterns and so on.

The one area of my project that I generally haven’t mentioned thus far is the sphere of Europe beyond the old Roman limites in Ireland, northern Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. This is partly because I know even less about it, on the whole, and partly because it would make this paper even more superficial and disjointed than it already is. Suffice it to say that significant change in the period I am discussing is at least as visible, and in some ways more so, there as it is in the former provinces. This is something that challenges yet further any attempt to explain the transformations.

4: Gender, the family and the community
Thus far I have discussed a series of changes in the political, social and economic structures of the West that took place in the generations either side of 600. One area of social history that I think is important to say something more about is gender and the family, and here I am focussing entirely on my north-western ‘sphere’.

I have already mentioned the change in the nature of grave-goods burial around 600 and the decline in gender-signification. Actually it is more of a decline in sex-signification. One of the interesting points about sixth-century society in the north-west is the fact that the burial custom appears to recognise a binary opposition of sexes; a bipolar gendered organisation based around sex. In other words, rather than the single masculine focus of classical Roman ideals, with women, barbarians and other ‘others’ defined by closeness to or difference from a central civic masculine ideal, one seems to have an idea of female status and identity that is not defined simply by difference from the male, it has, if you like, its own pole.

What happens in northern Gaul especially (but I think in Anglo-Saxon England too) is that specifically feminine artefacts are reduced much more seriously than masculine. What is more, whereas in the sixth century brooches and other feminine jewellery and costume accessories had been the focus for display in costume and (with the exception of swords and, one imagines, helmets and armour, which are not as a rule buried) the most sophistication in production techniques, in the seventh century masculine items like the large, ornate belt buckles take over in both spheres. The most elaborate brooches of the period are sometimes found in male graves.

The other thing that happens in this period, as can be seen principally from the written sources but which might also be detectable in the archaeology is the triumph of the martial model of masculinity. By 600 there seems to be no other model to rival it outside the church. The Roman civic model of masculinity has disappeared entirely and, to judge from conciliar legislation, even the ecclesiastical model seems to have been troubled to some extent by the dominance of martial expressions of manhood.

The demise of the feminine pole within the furnishing of cemeteries suggests to me a return to something more like the Roman construction of gender, with a dominant – now almost entirely martial – élite masculine focus against which other identities were judged by proximity or distance. I don’t think that it will suffice to explain away the changes in female costume simply by reference to changes of fashion – as has been done in the past. That is to say that there was less need for brooches. Nor will it suffice, even if it is a more sophisticated argument, to explain it in economic terms. Greater craft specialisation might have meant greater ability to display status through embroidery and so on, but that would be true of male clothing too, and this argument would not account for the investment of resources and skill in the inlaid buckles and disc brooches of the period. Studies of the Carolingian period seem to me to have emphasised a single-pole political conception of gender much along the lines I am suggesting. In the seventh century, then, the family became a dominant form of political and social organisation, determining rank and status.

Here, I have something – part suggestion, part plea for information and guidance – to throw out. This concerns political vocabulary and ideology. What I wonder is if there is, as part of the ideological refashionings I will come on to, a concomitant switch to an emphasis on the family and metaphors of kinship and the household in political vocabulary. Certainly, as far as I can see, it is the seventh century that sees the serious beginnings of the concern of kings (and others) in genealogies. Families become particularly important in the political ideology of the Bavarians and the Lombards. What of the terms for royal servants? The late Roman Empire had of course made a big deal out of the ‘sacred’ palace, the imperial bedchamber and so on, but I wonder if it is significant that it is particularly in this area that the early medieval kings not only drew upon their predecessors but developed the idea. So in addition to the domestici and comites stabuli, derived from Roman palatine administration, retinues are the king’s (or other magnates) ‘boys’. The Gothic Gardingus derives his title in part from the Gothic word for ‘house’. In Francia it might be significant that political power came to be wielded by someone called the Maior Domus, usually translated as Mayor of the Palace, but note that the word is domus, not palatium. The Lombard court was also replete with its marshals (from the same origin as the count of the stables) and other household officers, whose functions had nothing, it seems, to do with the literal meaning of their titles. When do the meanings of familia come to lean more towards the biological family than the notion of the household? [I don’t know; I am asking you.]

I have already mentioned the fact that, in terms of their organisation, cemeteries manifest an increasing concern with what seem to be family plots. Investment in burial displays of whatever sorts seems now to be more evenly distributed between ages and sexes than was the case before. Other aspects of hitherto communal norms in terms of organisation and the grave-goods custom are similarly reduced. What appears to be taking place is a rise in the importance of the family, vis-à-vis the community in local social organisation, and family identity and status appears to transcend status based around the occupation of life-cycle roles within families.

All this ought not to be controversial given the fairly clear implication in the written data that family identity was becoming more important and that we can start to detect aristocratic lineages in the north. Indeed the word nobilis, defined in this period by Isidore of Seville as 'one whose name and lineage are known', starts to be used. Now some have argued that nobilis is not really the usual term for the Frankish nobility maybe until the ninth century but there’s no doubt nevertheless that it is far more commonly used in the seventh century in northern Gaul than it had been in the sixth. The security of a family’s local standing and the importance of the lineage and of the male family head go hand in hand with this and this is reflected in the changing nature of the burial record.

5: Explanations (1): Political Crises and Justinian’s Wars
So I come to an attempt to try and explain all this. One overall cause seems to have been the problems that beset western European kings in the period either side of 600, in differing forms and at slightly different points in the various areas. A series of royal minorities in Francia between 575 and 613; chronic dynastic instability and repeated usurpation and civil war in Spain between about 600 and 640; the apparent decade-long interregnum of the Lombard monarchy, which may only have been revived as a result of negotiation between the successful candidate and his rival dukes (and we all now know what kind of compromises get made in these sorts of situation…). The communis opinio among Anglo-Saxonists is that kingdoms only appear at the end of the sixth century but this view lacks real evidential support and, like most things in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology, founders on comparison with mainland Europe. On the basis of the evidence we have, it is certainly not to be ruled out that what happened in England around 600 was the break-up of earlier, fragile but more extensive kingdoms into smaller more coherent ones.

To return to the Frankish example, the crucial importance of the series of minorities lies in the very success that the Merovingian dynasty had had over the previous century or so in creating a view that they were the only throne-worthy family, in ensuring that it had no familial connections with the Gaulish aristocracy and in reducing the élite, in northern Gaul especially, to the status of a service aristocracy. This meant that while the court and access to the king remained central, as indeed it did for the next 100 years, the faction controlling the palace had a crucial legitimacy gap but every reason to try and hold on to power as tightly as possible. Controlling access to the court was essential to this but only emphasised the difficulty of their political position. Thus power was bought by the granting of ostensibly royal patronage and, as I see it, the transformation of what had earlier been rather temporary grants of revenue or resources into permanent ones, often as outright gifts of land. This in turn allowed the aristocracy to cement its position vis-à-vis the remainder of the free population in ways that were far more independent of royal favour than had hitherto been the case. Hence the visible increase in control of land and estates and all the other economic changes that I have already listed.

Concepts of heredity of local power weakened the kings’ abilities to make their writ run in the localities and contributed decisively to the withering of the state. In this situation, male heads of households became even more important than they had been before and ideas of gender were renegotiated accordingly. Thus gender and the family are inextricably linked with, and have a very important role to play in, high politics and high political change, rather than changing simply as a passive response to the latter.

Many similar factors could have played a part in producing change in Anglo-Saxon England, especially if we abandon the unhelpful insularity of the explanations used in early insular studies. Where things must have been importantly different is in my southern, Mediterranean, sphere. Here it is perhaps boring and predictable but it is nevertheless impossible to get away from Justinian’s Wars as a major catalyst.

That and the possibly related decline of the Mediterranean trade routes might very well have brought about the changes in Spain too, though Leuvigild’s wars might also have critically undermined some local and regional élites. In Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, attention is drawn to the paradox between the supposed political power of the Gothic aristocracy and the archaeologically-revealed material poverty of the peninsula. This paradox cannot be resolved simply by dismissing the archaeology, but it might start to look more apparent than real if one questions the extent to which our idea of a mighty Gothic nobility is securely founded. The idea I am toying with, and I put it out for you to shoot down, is that the unity of the seventh century kingdom might have been a product of the weakening of such local élites, leading to a greater dependence upon access to the central royal court – a similar dynamic to that of earlier Merovingian Gaul in my reading. And yet, simultaneously, the failure of any dynasty to establish itself produced the spiralling stakes of internal Spanish politics and the ongoing, increasingly hysterical attempts to establish other underpinnings for royal authority. It can’t be that simple. I’ve already mentioned that the legal and other sources suggest some similar features in the Iberian aristocracy’s insertion of itself between kings and the remainder of the free in matters the law and of raising armies. Yet it might be a question of scale, of aristocrats whose power and local influence was greater than that of sixth-century aristocrats in the north-west of Europe but still less than it had been in some parts of Spain or than it was becoming in Francia. A similar dynamic to that in Gaul but involving rather different types of player. As stated, this is an area where I would welcome discussion and suggestions.

6: Explanations (2): Political Ideology: The end and remaking of hegemony
This explanation so far has focused on the material. I feel no shame about that. It goes a long way towards explaining the changes which are observable in the data, as I hope to have suggested. But it still leaves crucial areas unexplained. Where I think we go further towards a more rounded explanation – and it might be an explanation that would be serviceable in bringing the former barbaricum into the picture as well, given the inextricable inclusion of barbaricum within the Roman world, which I attempted to demonstrate in Barbarian Migrations – is if we look to this huge raft of changes as a response to the realisation that one was no longer living in a Roman world. The last chapter of Barbarian Migrations started to float some suggestions based initially the not very original notion that after the political demise of the Western Empire in the later fifth century politics and society nevertheless continued to run along within ostensibly Roman frameworks. What I then suggested was that the frameworks were increasingly unable to contain the socio-political realities they were supposed to contain.

This would probably make some reorganisation and reworking inevitable at some point but it became all the more crucial after the ideological output of Justinianic Constantinople proclaiming the West to have been ‘lost’ to barbarians and thus in need of reconquering. This at a stroke undercut the claim of any post-imperial ruler to be governing as ‘Old Empire under New Management’ (I currently ponder a sort of brief window of opportunity between about 480 and 515 when western kings might actually have been toying with the idea of becoming emperors). It demonstrably made things difficult even for Merovingians in the north of Gaul. Yet this was also a period that saw the emergence of a new, more self-confident ideology in those kingdoms, perhaps as a response to the Constantinopolitan ideology. This would include the later phases of Theoderic’s ideological output in Ravenna and the strident claims of Theudebert I of Austrasia slightly later. When these ideologies ran up against each other in the maelstrom of the Gothic Wars the seal was set. In the aftermath of Justinian’s military project running out of steam, a wholesale ideological reworking was necessary.

Thus, as is well known, the western kings moved away from their earlier dependence of Roman exemplars to make more use of biblical models of kingship. Davids and Solomons replace Trajans and Constantines. Compare Gregory of Tours’ Clovis with the Clovis who emerges from the documents of that king’s own time. Note the emerging Old Testament-based rituals of the Visigothic monarchy.

We can see other shifts as in the theological developments so interestingly discussed in Markus’ studies of Gregory the Great. Gregory of Tours’ works might themselves show similar moves – again, one might profitably compare his theological concerns with those, say, of Caesarius of Arles, who died when Gregory was four. One might, indeed, compare, Caesarius’ concerns with those of the clerics who composed his vita, nearer contemporaries of Gregory.

One can turn to the history of artistic decorative styles. From the middle of the sixth century, a new artistic style – Tierstil Zwei; Salin’s Style II – becomes increasingly popular across north western Europe. It is of southern Scandinavian origin but it spreads as far as Lombard Italy. It is different from its predecessor, funnily enough Style I, in that it is more orderly and the beasts within it are more coherent, although the human figure largely remains absent. Now there is a sort of metaphor here. The crisis of the fifth century is essentially, as I see it to a large extent the dislocation of the central figure of the civic Roman male, the ‘point de capiton’ or the master signifier of the whole Roman system of signification – I have alluded to this already. The disintegration of the image in the north west seems to me admirably to reflect this situation. Its coming back together in Style II matches the re-emergence of a new order, one which is crucially different from that of the old Roman world.

This leads me to another factor in my explanation of all this. The dialectical materialist framework that has governed most of my explanation above copes adequately well but it leaves unanswered a fundamental question of ‘why’. I am now not entirely impressed by my old argument which seems to imply that there would somehow naturally be an upsurge of conflict for resources between rulers and local élites. It was a argument I developed essentially because of I was (and am) even less impressed by the cosy, conservative (with big and small Cs) ‘consensus model’ I mentioned earlier. Yet why ought local élites not continue to do what their rulers said? Even in times of crisis.

So what I am playing with at the moment is Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. This – if I understand it correctly and I have only just started thinking about this; correct me if I am wrong – is an alliance of the political and the civic, the former the formal institutions of political power, the latter the less formal institutions that govern morals and so on. In Gramsci’s terms this represented State and Church. I wonder whether what happened in the fifth and the sixth century was that with the erosion of the old Roman civic model and the gradual erosion of the non-military aristocracy went a simultaneous erosion of old ideas about the correct political behaviour, so that eventually these would be quite out of step with the de facto practice of politics. This would compel serious ideological reworking. With the old Roman ideals out of reach in the post-Justinianic world it is perhaps not surprising that kings and others went back to the Old Testament as a source. Out of this perhaps we get a world that is as profoundly different from the classical, in its conceptions of the world, its ideas, its mental structures, as it is from that old Roman world in the spheres of economy and social structure.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Staffordshire Hoard: Warfare, Aggression and the Use of Trophies

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

‘From Roman fundus to Early Medieval ‘grand domaine’: the crucial rupture around 600AD’

This is the text of a paper I gave last week to a conference in Brussels about the Great Estate, in honour of Prof. Yoshiki Morimoto and (informally at least)in memory of Adriaan verhulst.

The title of my paper is a little misleading! I will not be arguing for a ‘rupture’ in the sense that might usually be understood, attempting to begin a discussion of ‘les mutations de l’an 600’ that would doubtless become as sterile as that on ‘l’an mil’. Professor Morimoto has correctly argued that the history of the early medieval rural economy can be so much richer by avoiding such debates between entrenched, polarised positions. I will, however, be discussing the rural settlement pattern in terms of a constant, dynamic development rather than a slow, barely perceptible evolution. Within this dynamism I will argue that a crucial role is played by changes in a period that I have referred to in my title – as a form of shorthand – as ‘around 600’ but which in fact spreads across the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh. Their importance lies not simply, retrospectively and teleologically, in establishing the conditions within which the ‘classic’ bipartite ‘Grand Domaine’ could emerge but in definitively breaking any clear line of descent from the Roman fundus to the Great Estate of the later Merovingian and Carolingian period.

Now, the idea that the Grand Domaine was the lineal descendant of Roman latifundia has in most studies long been rejected in favour of the former’s emergence in the seventh century. However, a 2004 article by Peter Sarris restated the old idea of the bipartite estate’s Roman foundations on the basis of a thorough, scholarly – and surely correct – discussion of eastern Roman (especially Egyptian) estate economy. Similarly, an article by Walter Goffart has also proposed extreme continuity in the organisation of the rural landscape and its fiscal and military obligations. I do not agree with these ideas of continuity and will use my defence of what is surely now the consensus view of the origins of the bipartite estate to structure my own argument. This will indeed be to look back to the Roman period in northern Gaul but to see this ‘background’ in rather different terms from those usually envisaged. I will then discuss the ways in which this situation changed in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, to argue that the debate on rural estate management and organisation cannot be separated from other discussions, such as that on the nature of the earlier Merovingian aristocracy and society more generally. I will therefore underline the variety and dynamism that recent researchers, notably Professor Devroey and Profssor Morimoto, as well – naturally – as the late Professor Verhulst have traced in the history of early medieval estates and add to it an element of unpredictability!

1: Intoduction:
It is a pleasure for me to honour Professor Morimoto. When writing my study of the region of Metz that appeared in 1995, I first discovered one of his immensely useful literature surveys, which was, without exaggerating very much at all, something like a gift from the heavens, not simply revealing some of the enormous bibliography that one tended to miss, working in a comparatively young university in days before the internet and electronic resources, but also in his thoughtful, judicious commentary on it. For that alone I am enormously grateful to have this opportunity to say a formal ‘thank you’.

My use of the word rupture in my title was somewhat misleading. I was possibly being unnecessarily hopeful or dramatic, or it might just have been too early in the morning, but I will not propose a ‘rupture’ in its usual sense, inciting a discussion of ‘les mutations de l’an 600’ that would doubtless become as sterile as that of ‘l’an mil’. Professor Morimoto correctly argued that early medieval rural economic history can be much richer by avoiding such debates between entrenched, polarised positions. I will, however, discuss rural settlement in terms of a constant, dynamic development rather than a slow evolution and argue that a crucial role is played by changes in a period that I have referred to – as shorthand – as ‘around 600’ but which spreads from the last third of the sixth century to the first half of the seventh.

Assigning importance to the period around 600 can hardly be considered revolutionary in the study of the rural estate. In 1962, Georges Duby had good reasons other than simply the end of the ‘Great Migrations’ to start his study of the Medieval Economy in 600. Nonetheless I hope to add something to our conception of this period. The changes at this time matter not simply in establishing the conditions within which the ‘classic’ bipartite ‘Grand Domaine’ could emerge but in definitively breaking any line of descent from the Roman fundus to the later Merovingian and Carolingian Great Estate.

Most of us will accept that the Grande Domaine was a later Merovingian creation, as established most notably by our symposiarch, Professor Devroey and the late and lamented Adriaan Verhulst, whose support and encouragement I must also acknowledge. Nevertheless, an extremely scholarly discussion of the Egyptian papyri by Peter Sarris has recently revived the idea of straightforward continuity from Roman to medieval, famously proposed by John Percival in a 1969 article. Sarris proclaims, indeed, that ‘It can no longer be safely assumed that the early medieval bipartite manor was a post-Roman, let alone a Carolingian creation.’

I don’t agree; I think it can be safely assumed that the classic early medieval bipartite manor was a post-Roman creation in its northern Frankish heartlands. But it is important, as research develops differently in separate but related fields, to reassess our assumptions and Sarris makes very good points on that front. It is valuable to consider, periodically, how we tie research done in one area to that done in others to take account of the progress made in each.

My response to this recent work structures my presentation. In particular, I will discuss the Roman background of the estate in northern Gaul, which in itself makes neat trajectories of continuity unlikely, and then the profound changes around 600, which mark a crucial rupture between the Roman world and the early Middle Ages and make it very difficult to argue – whether in terms of agricultural management or of military and other obligations – for a direct line of descent between the two. I will argue we can only explore some of these issues adequately by adopting a holistic approach, employing all types of evidence, including some which might not immediately seem directly relevant to the topic of estate management.
2: Preliminary ‘theoretical’ questions
First, some preliminary methodological questions:
1: Whether, in looking at rural settlement evidence to examine estate management, our evidence in fact talks about different things
2: related to (1), whether the archaeological evidence of change masks institutional continuity
3: how can we get evidence of one sort to help answer questions related to another?

In the first instance one can argue that, although archaeology shows where people were living, the buildings they used and so on, it cannot answer questions about the terms upon which land was held or about relations of tenancy or dependence between settlements. This is quite true, although we can nevertheless infer some things about social structure and economy and about change through time which bear directly on the issues of continuity, and about the likely existence of a particular type of social relationship at a given time and place. Nevertheless, the archaeological settlement data in itself finds difficulty in answering this important problem.

The second question is also well founded. We cannot know from archaeological evidence whether changes in settlement types and their distribution took place within contexts of institutional continuity in terms of the rents and services. Good excavation provides means of suggesting change in the landscape’s organisation and management, by using faunal and palynological data, which permit better responses to my first question too. Nevertheless, such high-quality data, though increasing dramatically in quantity, still cannot be said to be very common.

The third question provides my methodological focus. I will be making use of archaeology, of cemeteries and of rural settlements, of which we will hear more later and of which the evidence is increasingly important, as well as drawing inferences from the written documents of the period. My method has been to analyse each form of data on its own terms. The concentration on particular types of data to confront a single historical problematic runs the risk of, either, assigning greater significance than is warranted to changes revealed, or, alternatively, giving a misleading impression of stasis or continuity. Although the northern Gaulish evidence that concerns me has crucial problems and lacunae, it exists in reasonably large quantities and perhaps more importantly in most of the forms that are of relevance to the inquiry.

3: The Roman estate pattern in northern Gaul
This specifically regional focus is important. This is where the bipartite estate first appears in its developed form, so that its spread thence to other regions has been able to be mapped. Thus, for continuity to be plausible, a direct descent must demonstrable, in this specific part of the former Roman Empire.

Peter Sarris discusses the Egyptian data at length before adducing suggestive evidence for general trends, at least across the Eastern Empire, and citing some fragmentary western data, which suggest similarities with the Egyptian situation. I am not going to disagree with Peter’s discussion of Egypt. The question of why it ought to apply to the rest of the Roman Empire, especially places as far away as northern Gaul, is more serious, but, despite Egypt’s distinctive ecology, social structures and history, Sarris makes a good case that its general features might have applied more widely across the eastern Empire.

There are, though, from Peter’s own discussion, several reasons why the Egyptian pattern might not apply to Gaul. The first is that he makes it clear that the sixth-century Egyptian situation results from a trajectory of development from the third century onwards. The outlines of northern Gallic development were quite different. Second, much of the situation described, and many of the crucial changes, belong to the fifth century, when the west, and northern Gaul in particular, was changing in quite different directions. The northern Gallic settlement pattern underwent rapid, dramatic change at this time. Third, the political situation seriously questions the extent to which 5th-century legislation can have been applicable in Gaul north of the Loire or, especially, the Seine. The developments in urbanism in northern Gaul and very important differences and changes in social structure there furnish a fifth reason to doubt the Egyptian comparison. Sixth it is clear that the fifth- and sixth-century northern Gallic economy differed significantly from the Egyptian, not least in the drastic decline of production and in its increasingly non-monetary economy.

We can consider these points in more detail. Peter Sarris is correct to say that we early medievalists tend to discuss estate management and organisation without having a very clear idea of the classical Roman background, but he is also correct that what we know about that background is fragmentary in large swathes of the Empire like northern Gaul.

The points I want to stress first – they are not original – are simply that northern Gaul was, overall, very different from southern Gaul and that there are important differences within this large region. The most important, which we run into again and again, is the distinctiveness of the Triererland. This might provide some possible support for Sarris’ thesis. The constant feature in comparing Gaul north and south of the Loire (to use a crude if convenient borderline) is that the northern aristocracy was, with the exception of that around Trier, generally significantly less wealthy than the southern.

However much more subtly the so-called ‘third-century crisis’ is understood, there were important third-century changes, notably a significant restructuring of the settlement pattern and a dramatic reduction in the number of villas. This is now known to have been less catastrophic than was sometimes once argued. It is also clear, thanks to Paul Van Ossel’s work, that patterns of abandonment varied from one region to another. It nevertheless remains true that in some regions 50% of the villas occupied – as villas – in the early third century had been abandoned by the fourth. Sometimes the number is higher, sometimes lower, but we cannot avoid either this basic fact or the major change that it implies.

A past mistake was to assume that this meant, ipso facto, a decline in agricultural productivity or prosperity. Some recent discussions of the fate of the villa have nevertheless moved too far from the processes of change in counteracting older views of catastrophic desertion. Continuing occupation of a villa-site is often held to outweigh the change in form involved. The villa was more than just a farm built according to more or less Roman norms. Its stone construction, tiled roofs, bath-houses, and especially indications of ‘luxury’ such as wall-paintings and mosaic floors, attest a high level of economic complexity. Stone needed to be quarried and transported; tiles had to be made by specialist craftsmen. This level of complexity is simply absent from wooden structures, however often we are reminded that timber buildings can be quite sophisticated. In turn, that has implications about the ability of the owners of such settlements to extract and control agricultural surplus. The only alternative is to assume that they no longer wished to live in Roman-style houses. I find that recently fashionable argument entirely unconvincing. The reduction in villa numbers does not therefore mean declining agricultural production or the desertion of land, but it does imply important changes in social structure and landscape organisation. I suggest that the major force involved in such change was the Roman state.

State involvement in the northern Gaulish countryside is well-known, most obviously in the Langmauer constructed around the Welschbillig estate by a unit of Primani. The defence of agricultural stores has recently become visible. Where villas have been made defensible, it is, according to Van Ossel, usually storage facilities that are fortified. There are also fortified granaries, two storey silos and so on. It seems reasonable to postulate at least a heavy state involvement in the extraction of agricultural surplus. Given the large number of troops and civic functionaries along the Rhine and its Gallic hinterland and the well-known late Roman changes in the payment and supply of the army and bureaucracy, this conclusion is not surprising or controversial.

If one accepts that the late imperial state began to harness northern Gaulish agricultural production for its own purposes, probably through seizing or otherwise appropriating private estates, then the decline in villas becomes more understandable. Imperial estate managers might have had no incentive or ability to divert proceeds into their own élite dwellings. Where the Empire rewarded its military and civil officers and servants through grants of the tax-receipts or other yields from designated estates, the recipients of such patronage need, firstly, not have actually lived permanently on the estate itself and, secondly, such grants might very well have been made on a short-term basis with an attendant rapid turnover in landlords. This argument also makes it unsurprising that the Trier region, where the imperial court was so frequently located before 388, is an exception to this rule. Its large villas might have been imperial residences, as has been suggested for Konz, or have belonged to high-ranking palatine aristocrats.

This conclusion presents serious problems for the idea of direct, Roman to Carolingian continuity in estate organisation. It need not, however, be fatal. One might suggest that, like the later monastic estates of Saint-Germain-des-Près and the rest, imperial estates were organised as bipartite domains with central farms and dependent tenancies and that they could have passed intact into the hands of local aristocrats. This possibility is best examined by considering the changes that occurred around the end of the Roman Empire and exploring the nature of the villa in early Merovingian documents.

4: Roman to Merovingian
The change from the late imperial to the Merovingian period is marked simultaneously by the demise of élite Gallo-Roman settlement forms and a general continuity in the settlement pattern. This is visible in various regions north of the Loire. The distribution of Merovingian settlement, still best demonstrated through the map of cemeteries from that period, covers the same areas as late Roman settlements.

The old idea that the settlement pattern contracted in the fifth century to the network of modern villages with particular place-names has long been rejected but it remains important to note the close correlation between Merovingian cemeteries and modern villages. Around Metz, perhaps two thirds of such cemeteries underlie or are very close to modern villages, a pattern demonstrated in other areas. There are various means by which this continuity of location can have been effected; one is the construction of a church on or near the old cemetery and a localisation of settlement around that focus. This might have happened at a significantly later date. Studies of rural settlement suggest, furthermore, a certain mobility, so such general continuity need not imply that the settlement remained in exactly the same place for a long time. Nonetheless, the study of old archaeological records shows a widespread linkage between Roman settlements, often of villa-type, Merovingian cemeteries and churches and thus modern villages. This suggests that the network of modern villages is, broadly, an element of the late antique settlement pattern and probably an element of some prestige within it. This model has been quite thoroughly confirmed on a micro-level by J.M. Blaising’s study of the area of Yutz (Moselle). Here the sites occupied in the late Roman period showed Merovingian occupation; those abandoned after the early Roman period did not. It seems, then, that the major contraction of the settlement pattern took place within the imperial period and that the fifth-century developments occurred within that framework.

Nonetheless those changes were important. However better excavation techniques and advances in our knowledge of the last phases of the late Roman Argonne Ware tradition have nuanced the picture, it remains true that, north of the Seine, villas were generally abandoned – as villas – by the middle of the fifth century, sometimes slightly earlier.

This final abandonment coincides with other transformations suggesting dramatic socio-economic collapse. Towns and other nucleated settlements contract dramatically and industries wither. If Argonne pottery did not completely die out, as once thought, the amount of work necessary to construct a chronology of its latest types testifies eloquently to a reduction in forms and decorations and a huge simplification of its production. Stone quarrying and masonry and tile-manufacture ceased. The regional economy had become effectively non-monetary by the middle of the century at the latest. The appearance of new timber-building types – long-houses, post-built halls and sunken-featured buildings – looks like a response to straitened economic circumstances. Indeed it seems to be a common response, across north-western Europe, to similar crises.

Simultaneously another archaeological feature appears which is, similarly and in my view incorrectly, regarded – ethnically – as a sign of ‘Germanic’ settlement, rather than – socially – as a response to crisis: the rite of furnished inhumation. This appears earliest in areas where the economic decline is most serious and, crucially, hardly at all in the Trier region, where indications of aristocratic wealth and, importantly, continuity into the Merovingian period are strongest. I have argued repeatedly that these burials are a response on the part of local élites – implicitly not especially powerful – to a situation wherein their power was under threat.

These changes must be connected to the break-down of imperial government north of the Loire. Frans Theuws and I have – in different but not incompatible ways – connected furnished burials with landholders with a connection to the Empire. Outside the Triererland, the local aristocracy was not very wealthy; it had not been able to concentrate surplus securely enough to maintain villa life. It was, I suggest, intimately related to the imperial government’s presence in the region. These factors make it easy to understand the profound crisis that the withdrawal of government caused. The early furnished burials, in small clusters on cemeteries of all sorts, represent the local minor aristocracy – what the English might call squires – demonstrating their status and its foundations to their neighbours and perhaps rivals, when this was challenged by the death of a family member, usually an adult male.

How does this affect my earlier suggestion that imperial estates in this region might have been organised like those of the later polyptychs into bipartite estates with demesne and tenancies, and might have passed intact to the control of local aristocracts? I think it renders it improbable. The archaeology I have described suggests that, even if the estates had been organised in the bipartite way, they surely broke up in the fifth century. Without imperial backing the claims to own such estates and their dues would be seriously threatened. The regional aristocracy was not massively wealthy. Competition from rival aristocrats might have led quickly to a loosening of ties of dependence to buy local political support. If the aristocrats had been more powerful one might expect that the wealth of the holders of such estates would increase with the collapse of imperial authority: they would not have to pass as much of it on in tax. The results of this sort of situation might be seen in North Africa or possibly southern Italy. The archaeology of those areas, though, particularly of élite settlements, is quite different from that in northern Gaul, where, to judge from the overall economic decline, whatever surplus remained to our putative estate-holders seems to have reduced rather than increased. It was certainly not being used to support industry and manufacture or to maintain villa-style élite dwellings. Either it was needed to support military retinues or it was being spent in ritual displays and gifts to maintain local standing, as one might expect in these political circumstances. I have said already that I do not find the argument that a simple change of fashion or a rejection of Roman norms at all satisfactory as an explanation for the end of the villa, not least because for the fifth and much of the sixth century the settlements known to us continue to be archaeologically ephemeral.

Overall it seems more plausible to suggest that the Roman state had a simpler method of surplus extraction, based around the collection of taxes from free landholders within designated areas – assiettes fiscales in Jean Durliat’s terms – perhaps concentrating collection at particular points. This would make it easier to pay its servants in the way I have suggested and help explain why there was no wealthy landowning aristocracy in the region, outside the Triererland, that could fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of state presence. All this becomes more plausible when one considers early Merovingian society and landholding.

5: Early Merovingian society and estate management
In the late fifth- and sixth-century northern Gaul, surplus was not going into the construction of new élite settlements. Cemetery archaeology suggests reasons. By about 525, whole Merovingian communities were burying their dead with grave-goods. I have long argued that the close study of this ritual reveals societies within which local authority was precariously maintained from one generation to the next, open to competition and requiring constant expenditure on ritual and gift-giving. Lavishly-furnished burials are anything but ‘tombes de chef’ (simple reflections of wealth, power and status). Sixth-century grave-goods were distributed competitively, but mainly according to age and gender. The most lavish goods accompanied those people whose deaths caused the greatest rupture in local social relations: mainly mature adult males but also younger adult women. This conclusion has been underlined by other work on better-quality data from other areas.

This tallies well with the scanty written sources, legal and narrative, which do not suggest the existence of a powerful, independent nobility in sixth-century northern Gaul. Salic Law implies that higher social standing was solely based upon a connection with the king. Not only the absence of a legally-recognised noble stratum suggests this (there is no legally-recognised aristocracy in Lex Ribvaria either); the absence from the laws of any indices of ties of dependence and obligation within the free population points the same way.

I am not suggesting that there were no locally-dominant families in northern Gaul, or denying that they could have maintained such pre-eminence over the whole period with which I am concerned. Nor am I suggesting that their position did not predate the Merovingian kingdom’s creation. One problem with Chris Wickham’s argument in The Framing of the Early Middle Ages is his assumption that the argument against a powerful early Frankish nobility has these implications; it does not. What it implies is simply that such aristocrats’ local authority was precarious, expensively maintained and best underpinned by a connection with the administration of the kingdom, quickly making the local élite into a service aristocracy.

The rewards for royal service were considerable: legal privilege, the ability to adjudicate disputes, the possibilities for creating one’s own patronage networks. Kings could thus tax, even if the precise mechanisms involved are obscure in the non-monetary north and even if it seems likely that most of the proceeds remained in the localities as rewards and salaries for royal officials. The fragmentary data suggest a continuation of the late Roman situation; royal officers paid with taxes from designated areas, referred to as villae in earlier Merovingian sources. In Gregory of Tours’ writings, villa frequently meant a small region within which several people held land. Martin Heinzelmann argued that it only really has the sense of ‘estate’ when discussing royal properties. This remains true later in the Merovingian period as I and others have shown.

A politically-important connection to the kings was also behind the spread of Frankish ethnicity, bringing legal status and privilege and permitting service in the army, membership of which increasingly manifested the right to participate in politics. The sixth-century army was mustered by royal officials from the ‘Franks’ within particular administrative areas, enabling the kings to employ it as an independent coercive force. This does not imply a general or unselective levy of freemen, and it does not mean that Frankish identity was something innately connected to descent from incomers from east of the Rhine; both these elements of my argument have recently been misunderstood.

This situation made the kings dominant within their realms. The competition for power within local communities drew royal power down into them. For most of the sixth century kings could distribute and redistribute their patronage among the competitors for authority. This and the fact that the northern Gallic aristocracy had – outside Trier – not been very wealthy and powerful before the creation of the Frankish realm meant that an independently wealthy aristocratic or noble class did not emerge at this early date. The ability to tax and to use the army as a coercive force allows us to call the sixth-century kingdom a state.

In all this, the early Merovingian period can be viewed as a development of the late Roman situation – even if it differed from the latter in many important ways. As far as the northern Gaulish countryside is concerned, I hypothesise that it was essentially organised as free family holdings of various sizes, made up of different types of land, some held in association with Frankish identity and military service and thus subject to particular inheritance provisions but – like the lands of Roman soldiers – with certain tax-exemptions, and other elements acquired through gift, exchange, dowers and dowries, bride prices and so on, and subject to different dues. Little in the northern Gallic evidence suggests significant rural slavery, although, in the working of their farms, free families were doubtless helped by some slaves or semi-free dependents. The precise picture, as I said in 1995, was like a kaleidoscope. Each generation, partible inheritance would break up landholdings, marriage and other exchanges and alliances would lead to changes of owner and new patterns would emerge, only to fragment again in time. The land was organised into villae, small rural areas. Sometimes these were probably based around former villa-type settlements, now deserted but remaining ritual foci for community identity through their use as cemetery-sites. These villae retained some coherence through their use in the organisation of taxation. Dues would be collected by a royal officer, perhaps local, perhaps not, with some passed on to the court or to officers higher up the chain of command and others retained as a salary. Some such villae were directly in the possession of the fisc. From these royal villas all dues would pass directly to the crown. In spite of the changes that took place since the end of the fourth century, Édith Peytremann’s study of Merovingian rural settlement agrees in seeing it, in the late fifth and sixth centuries, within the late antique framework.

It is difficult to imagine large bipartite estates of the classic variety in the picture I am painting. The situation’s fluidity, the absence of powerful aristocrats, the continuing lack of any signs of secure surplus-control over long periods, the royal ability to control and break up aristocratic land-holdings: all this seems to me to make the idea that bipartite estates existed in sixth century northern Gaul quite improbable.

The one area where this might not apply is around Trier. Here the local aristocracy retained its Roman identity through the Merovingian era, as shown by the exceptional series of inscriptions in the city itself. Its sense of identity seems to have made it resistant to reduction to a royal service aristocracy and significantly, although the Austrasian kings tried to make Trier their capital, they soon moved elsewhere, eventually to Metz, further up the Moselle, where their own political ideology was more easily inscribed. How far this self-styled senatorial nobility extended outside Trier itself is unclear. In the rural areas of the civitas, cemeteries are far more like those elsewhere in the north-east. Nevertheless, the indications of continuity in the town make it possible that Trier remained the focus for an exceptionally independent aristocracy, whose estates could have been organised differently.
6: Change around 600
Thus far, I have argued that until the later sixth century the northern Gallic countryside continued to be organised in a way that remained – in general – within the late Roman frameworks. That does not make likely, though – to be sure – neither does it definitively exclude, the organisation of aristocratic estates as classic bipartite ‘grandes domaines’ or anything significantly resembling them. The reasons for this are to be sought in the specific history of northern Gaul from the third century onwards and thus my conclusions have no implicit validity for any other part of the Empire. But for the argument that the later Merovingian bipartite estate has Roman roots to be plausible, it must be specifically applicable to northern Gaul.

In the generations either side of 600, though, it is becoming clear that whatever had persisted from the Roman Empire was definitively swept away by vitally important transformations, visible across all areas of Merovingian society; time permits only a brief catalogue. The minting of coins, tremisses, returns to the north. There is, as has long been known, a major change in the forms and design of artefacts, which manifest an increased degree of craft specialisation. As one might expect from this and the return of a monetary element, the economy shows other signs of entering a phase of growth. Towns start to recover from a period of stagnation and there are greater signs of long-distance exchange. Crucially for Chris Wickham’s argument in The Framing of the Early Middle Ages, pottery of the Roman Argonne tradition, the patterns of distribution of which were his principal support in arguing for a powerful northern Gallic aristocracy before 600, dies out around that date. We see other significant changes in the production of local communal wares, which replace such pottery. Other ceramic types appear some of which are distributed over large areas. Organised stone-working and transportation is visible in the reappearance of stone sarcophagi and in new stone funerary monuments.

All these economic developments are matched by archaeological signs of social change. On cemeteries, evidently communal organisation by rows often breaks down with the emergence of what look like family plots. Cemeteries become more numerous, probably serving smaller communities. Simultaneously, and in clear connection with this, the grave-goods custom declines. Goods buried with the dead become fewer and more standardised; links with age and gender become much less clear. Within such goods as remain, masculine artefacts are now far more common than feminine. The most lavish, such as plaque buckles, are overwhelmingly found in male burials. As the relative investment in the transient ritual of grave-goods deposition, which required a large audience at the grave-side to be effective, is reduced, more resources were spent on permanent, above-ground markers: the sarcophagi-lids and monuments mentioned earlier, but also walls around clusters of burials. As the simultaneous appearance of grave groups removed or otherwise distinguished from the others on a cemetery makes clear, these developments are associated with the emergence of a more secure local élite.

The aristocrats’ new security is manifested, too, as has been suggested for a long time, by noble saints and the establishment of aristocratic family churches and monasteries, at first in or near towns and later in the countryside. Lex Ribvaria gives far more indications of the existence of a stratum of more powerful freemen, repeatedly referring to the possibility that such people might intervene in the normal customs of inheritance through the use of written deeds. Not surprisingly it is from this time that documents begin to survive in the north, through which aristocratic estates can begin to be studied in detail. We can trace northern aristocratic lineages for the first time. And so on. With established local pre-eminence, the evident ability to project this into the future, and some means by which partible inheritance could be circumvented, it is clear that élite control of agricultural surplus was more secure, which explains the economic and urban transformations listed earlier.

This is also visible in the archaeology of northern Gaulish rural settlements. From the second half of the sixth century, but especially the seventh, archaeological traces of rural settlements become very much more numerous and more visible. Furthermore, as Peytremann argues, their organisation and nature breaks definitively with the late Roman or late antique pattern that had persisted until then. Signs of a new organisation of the landscape and of settlements appear, as – perhaps not surprisingly – does more evidence of specialist manufacture on rural settlements. Faunal assemblages suggest more frequent agricultural specialisation, particularly on cereal farming, rather than the more autarchic economies suggested on earlier sites. (Obviously these suggestions are made from the still comparatively few sites where sufficient evidence exists.)

Currently, I put those changes under the general political heading of the end of the late antique western state. The appearance of a more secure aristocracy, and all the changes I have briefly listed, coincide with the end of some of the key features of the sixth-century kingdom. It has long been known that royal taxation fizzles out in the sixth century. The right to such dues now appears to have been passed on to aristocratic landowners. And, famously, we have the appearance of immunities, areas exempt from the exaction of royal dues. This intervention of local aristocrats in the collection of dues – their privatisation of it one might say – is, as I have argued before, matched in the sphere of military history. The spread of Frankish identity made it imperative to find other ways of raising the army and this seems to have been via the aristocratic retinue. This suggestion has recently been declared to be ‘sans la moindre justification’ except for a change in terminology. This is unfair. The change in terminology is significant, for the word scara itself implies selection – not that this system was necessarily any more select than the old one. We have descriptions of armies as being composed of nobles and their satellites, with no reference to old administrative units. There are various other indications which point the same way. The period around 600 was vitally important in the organisation and practice of warfare and – similarly – in a way that marks a decisive rupture with the frameworks of the Roman period.

When charter evidence becomes available it tends to confirm the outlines of the development I have sketched. Villae are units within which several people hold land, organised according to mansi or hobae, apparently synonyms, which seem to represent farms rather than simple tax or assessment units. Where whole villae appear as estates it is when they are royal estates being granted away. But there is still no clear indication of organisation in the classic bipartite fashion, and no evidence of a division into the infield of a nucleated settlement and its outfield. It is clear to me that those developments do indeed come later than the early seventh century as has long been argued.

7: Conclusion
My conclusion that the bipartite estate is a contingent development in northern Gaul that took place probably later than the first half of the seventh century is hardly very interesting. But nor do I think that the important changes that took place between the late sixth and the early seventh century are important simply for putting in place the conditions within which that development could emerge. Descriptively this is true enough, but analytically it is, I believe, as much a mistake to see the Grande Domaine as an inevitable outgrowth of the situation of the period around 600 as it would be to see the bipartite estate as an inevitable development from the Roman latifundia. It is clear from the archaeology of rural settlements that an even bigger surge of development took place from the second half of the seventh century, one which I would link with other political and social changes, but which I cannot discuss today. They further bury any neat link with the Roman estate in this region, but what I would suggest is that they did not have to happen. The development of the rural estate and the organisation of the countryside was always in a state of flux and tension and closely related to high politics and to other aspects of society and economy. What I do want to suggest, though, is that the changes that took place around 600 were vitally important in breaking with the Roman world and its organisation. In this, it shares vital features with many other changes occurring at the same time. This I think allows us to reject the idea of Roman to medieval continuity. In the area of northern Gallic social history and its relationship to rural settlement patterns, new data and methods only underline how true the old conclusion remains.