[A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Ghent to give a lecture to their cohort of archaeology doctoral students as part of a course on theory in archaeology. My great thanks to Roald Docter and Maxime Poulain for the invitation and for an extremely pleasant evening, and to the students for their questions and discussion. I have posted the text of the lecture not because it is in any way profound or original, or possibly even interesting, but just in case it is of any use to anyone pondering these issues.]
a. What I am going to do today is take you, in a way, on a journey through my own thinking about how we ought to conceive of identity and go about exploring it in the archaeological record. I am going to start by setting the scene with a brief overview of the ways in which identities were thought about in early medieval archaeology up to about the 1980s in the UK, when I started my own research, and which have persisted in many area (including in the UK) after that. Then I will describe my approach to the study of identities and their place in social history, as it was in my own PhD, the book based upon it and as it was developed in my work, and others’, up until about 2010. After that I want to make a brief critique of that way of looking at the subject, before setting out how I have – I hope – refined my thinking about identities since then.
b. I am going to be talking mostly about the evidence of early medieval cemeteries – mainly sixth-century cemeteries and mainly in what I call ‘northern Gaul’ – but I will make some reference to other areas of archaeological research, most notably in settlements and particular types of artefact. The cemetery archaeology of the early middle ages does provide an exceptionally fruitful avenue into the subject because the practice of burying the dead with grave-goods in the sixth century meant that we have some means of associating people of various genders and stages of the life cycle with particular types of objects and other aspects of the material cultural record. We can compare those with other sets of associations and perhaps begin to explore the issue of identity and how it changed through time and space. We can discuss how this might compare with other periods and places
c. Before I start, though, I want to address the obvious criticism of the topic, which is that modern scholars work a lot on identities, but did past people care as much? Certainly it can be argued that early medieval people did not say very much about identities, and nor do modern people, outside academia. But they did not say very much about a lot of things that modern scholars obsess over, such as gender, ethnicity, social age, or sometimes even aristocracy or nobility. The only social categories that they wrote much about were ones with precise legal importance, status that had implications for property and legal rights. But I want to suggest that concepts of identity are implicated in all manner of everyday dealings and lie at the heart of social change and the lived experience of past (and present) people, even if they are rarely articulated as such.
2. Brief historiography of identities in archaeology
a. Cemetery archaeology
As just mentioned, the archaeology of early medieval cemeteries is a fruitful area in which to explore identities and these types of evidence have indeed been associated with particular types of identity since the earliest days of early medieval archaeology in Europe. I will briefly run through these for those who do not specialise in this archaeology.
Probably the oldest, most venerable form of identity which the cemetery archaeology has been employed to study is ethnicity. This is largely because of a historical narrative that sees the Europe of the fifth and sixth centuries as dominated by the migration of peoples (Völkerwanderung). New peoples from Germania established themselves in the former provinces of the western Roman Empire and it was thought that the archaeology of the period could illustrate this process. Burials with grave-goods, especially weaponry and jewellery, were thought to be those of immigrant germani; those without were believed to be the graves of native Romans, Romano-Britons, or Gallo-Romans.
Additionally, within the graves with grave-goods, it was felt that particular styles of object could be linked with particular ethnic groups: Franks, Alamans, Saxons, and so on.
This was of course no more than an extension of the widespread archaeological belief in ‘Culture-Groups’ that could be given a significance as relating to ‘peoples’, that was common in other periods, prehistoric and ‘protohistoric’.
These ideas are still common in some early medieval archaeology, although they have been extensively critiqued for the past twenty years and more. Sebastian Brather’s monumental volume on ethnic identity summarises a lot of this work and should have put an end to it, but it has received something of a backlash from traditional German archaeologists, encouraged by much-publicised work by British historians of a conservative bent, and in alliance with the misuse of DNA to – allegedly – explore ethnicity.
Suffice it to say that the empirical basis for any association of the rite of furnished inhumation – burial with grave-goods – with Germanic-speaking barbarians is all but non-existent. It must also be conceded that artefacts cannot possibly have an ethnic identity in and of themselves. If there is an ‘ethnic’ symbolic content to these burials it needs to be examined in a much more subtle fashion and it needs to be demonstrated, rather than assumed.
Closely related to the ‘ethnic’ reading of these burials is a ‘religious’ one. The rite of burial with grave-goods has often been assumed to be a ‘pagan’ ritual, so that graves with goods have been thought to be the burials of pagans while those without have been assumed to be the resting places of Christians. In 1975, Bailey K. Young published his PhD thesis, which was a close and detailed exploration of the links between grave-furnishing and specific religious belief especially in an early medieval European setting but with much use of comparative material. He demonstrated amply that there was no demonstrable link at all that could be assumed between grave-goods and non-Christian belief. The Church passed a reasonable corpus of legislation about burial in this period but never outlawed the deposition of grave-goods, other than church property, even if some Christian theologians believed that the rite was pointless. In addition to that, there were burials with grave-goods, sometimes with lavish grave-goods, under churches, known from both written sources and archaeological excavations: the famous burials under Cologne Cathedral and St-Denis in what are now the suburbs of Paris are classic instances of the latter. Gregory of Tours describes a burial in a church with ‘much gold and a profusion of ornaments’ – without any critical comment – in his Histories.
All this – like Brather’s book on ethnic identity – should have killed off the links between burials with grave-goods and those without and pagans and Christians respectively, but the idea continues to refuse to go away. One case that might concern us today concerns Martin Carver’s proposal that the Sutton Hoo ship burial and graves like it might be a conscious expression of an anti-Christian stance in the context of early seventh-century England – the period of Christian conversion. Robert Van Noort has attempted to extend the theory to mound burials on the periphery of the Frankish world. This is an interesting idea but it suffers from a mass of empirical problems and has been much criticised – although Carver continues to repeat it.
There may be other means of detecting religious identity in early medieval burials but, again, they require a much subtler analysis that demonstrates the links rather than assumes them a priori.
iii. Rank and status
The third heading under which Early medieval burials were linked with social identities was ‘rank and status’. If the inhumation rite could be understood as determined by ethnic custom and/or non-Christian religious belief, then what did the differences in furnishing signify?
The obvious answer seemed to be that they marked differences in wealth. That does not seem an outrageous suggestion, especially if looking at the most lavish ends of the spectrum. Archaeologists like Rainer Christlein proposed particular classifications of burials according to wealth and the types of object in them. The most famous of these Qualitätsgruppen is Group C, which was held to be the graves of the aristocracy, and especially – in a northern Gallic context – an incoming Frankish or Alamannic aristocracy connected with the new barbarian kings of the period.
Other attempts to read status- or rank-based identities from the graves were rather less subtle and made simple linkages between particular combinations of artefacts and the legal statuses attested in post-imperial law codes like Salic Law. In these readings a sword, spear and shield might indicate a nobleman, a sword and a spear a freeman, a scramasax or spear alone a half freeman and no weapons a slave.
The problems of these sorts of reading are many, if the evidence is looked at closely or comparisons are made across time and place. They would lead to the suggestion that Alamannia had a lot more aristocrats than Francia, but Bavaria was largely occupied by slaves, for example. It would seem that there were far more aristocrats in the sixth century than the seventh and that by the late seventh century almost everyone in northern Gaul and Germany, and most of Anglo-Saxon England, had become a slave. If one looked at the age of the deceased, it would seem that one was a slave in childhood, became a freeman in early adulthood before achieving nobility between the ages of 30 and 40 and dropping back into half-freedom or even slavery in old age!
Clearly these sorts of reading were difficult to maintain but even Christlein’s more empirically-based, less prescriptive proposition had its problems, when viewed in that sort of detailed and comparative perspective. Most importantly, it did not really explain why aristocrats would want to deposit that quantity and qualitative level of material in their burials if their position in society was as established as he seemed to want to imply. To answer that, as noted earlier, it had to fall back on a religious or ethnic explanation for the rite, which was – as I have suggested – unsatisfactory.
The last area where one could read identities from the burial goods was sex and gender – although what the distinction between these categories might be remained unclear. This is in some regards the least problematic of the readings. There does seem to be a distinction between graves buried with certain items of jewellery or dress adornments – brooches, bracelets, earrings, hairpins, necklaces and so on – and those buried with weaponry. It does seem to be the norm that the former group are the graves of females and the latter those of men. This is, overall, the case, but it is far less straightforward than that makes it seem, as we shall see. Much early work made a lot of assumptions that were not tested, assuming that knives counted as weapons, or that certain forms of beads were always feminine jewellery, without considering the evidence of the bones. These assumptions are much more problematic and have to be rejected. Similarly, sometimes the bones themselves were sexed on the basis of the artefacts, which is inadmissible. It was noted that far from all burials had either weapons or jewellery, so the link between furnishing and biological sex had to be more complex than might have been assumed.
Finally, the question had to be posed, as for the aristocratic graves, of why people would be buried like this. Why did some people (but not others) have their sex marked in burial?
For an extensive, detailed and critical review of all of these early attempts to read identities from the graves of early medieval western Europe, you can do no better than read Bonnie Effros’ book, Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Middle Ages (2003).
I have mentioned at various points the ways in which certain types of artefact in graves were assumed to be indicators of identity: ethnic, religious, class or gendered. But artefacts might have other connections with identities. Ceramics for example might have connections with processes of food-production that are gendered or which are held to be constitutive of a particular ethnic world view. They might also, in the case of expensive imports, or the containers of expensive imported food or drink, be markers of wealth and status. Such aspects have been – with the exception of imports – less thoroughly explored in early medieval archaeology than in other areas. There may be a lot more to be gained from them but these areas are difficult to establish from the archaeological record. I am not going to be saying much about them today.
Forms of settlement have also had particular types of identity attached to them in early medieval archaeology. The settlement forms that emerge in the north-west of Europe around the end of the Western Roman Empire, with timber halls and sunken huts – Grubenhäuser – have also often been assumed to be markers of the settlement of incoming Germanic-speaking barbarians. This probably remains the most widespread area where ethnicity is read into the excavated record in a straightforward way. It is, however, problematic. As the archaeology of rural settlements has become more evenly distributed across western Europe a straightforward link between these building types and barbarian incomers has seemed ever-less plausible. The ways in which cultural influences spread between the Roman Empire and barbaricum are probably much more complex and interesting than used to be assumed. Quite how a building expressed an identity is also worthy of more detailed consideration. I will return to this question briefly at the end.
3. The approach in Settlement and Social Organisation, and after.
This more or less sets out the state of play when I started my PhD in the mid-late 1980s, although, as I have mentioned, some of these issues have not changed as much as one would have liked since then. My research project was on the Merovingian diocese of Metz. It had no especial focus other than a survey of its history and archaeology but luckily there was the cemetery of Ennery (Moselle) which had a physical anthropological study as well as what seemed to be reasonably reliable recording of the burial assemblages, and that allowed me to start to formulate some ideas. At that stage there was very little published work on French rural settlement archaeology – one of a number of areas of French archaeology which have changed enormously for the better since then.
By way of background, the debate on Anglo-Saxon cemeteries at that date had suggested that there might be gender-specific ‘kits’ for men and women, so I started off by exploring this issue. I saw that one could separate out the grave-goods into two groups that were never found together and that these two groups were associated with biologically male and female skeletons. It was noticing that the most heavily gendered burials were those of particular age groups that set me off onto looking at social age and the life cycle and creating a model that could be explored with other cemeteries.
b. Reading the cemetery data as active
Crucial to my reading was the notion that had emerged in the then-current post-processual archaeology in the UK that the archaeological record was actively and meaningfully created, rather than being a simple, passive reflection of past society. I wanted to know why people would bury the dead with grave-goods, especially as the ethnic and religious readings seemed to me to be insufficient explanations of the practice.
The idea that the grave-goods revealed a straightforward, passive, functional picture of the dead person was also being criticised at that point. Heinrich Härke, for example, had argued at length that not everyone who was buried with weapons could have been a warrior in life.
But it nevertheless seemed plausible that the grave-goods presented an idealised picture of what someone of a particular age and sex might have been like. The effort expended on the furnishing of the grave, I argued in various articles, was linked to the stress in local society brought about by the death in question. Thus the burials which contained the most lavish grave-goods displays were typically those of women in their teens, who we might assume – on the basis of written data – were of marriageable age or married, women between 20 and 40, who we might assume had died before their children had reached the legal age of majority, and men between the ages of 40 and 60 – later work suggested that the ages of 30-50 might have been more significant – who had died before their sons had married and settled down. The ideas about marriageable age of men and women were largely drawn from contemporary Frankish written sources. Tying the grave-goods display to the life cycle, to marriages and other alliances between families and to issues of inheritance allowed one to understand the blurred edges of the categories created. It seemed furthermore that claims to a higher standing in the community were made by exaggerating the norms of what was suitable for particular people. If, for example, young adult males were appropriately buried with weaponry, spears for example, then a family would show its status by burying a young adult male member with several spears or multiple types of weapon. If young adult women were buried with jewellery, they buried a dead young woman with lots of jewellery, or with jewellery of high value.
A couple of other issues need to be mentioned. The first was that this evidence was a sign of significant social competition at the local level, which I have associated with the collapse of the Roman land-holding pattern in the region, the villas and the imperial estates, in the crisis around AD 400 and afterwards. That meant that it was a manifestation of identities that might only be archaeologically visible in certain circumstances, and not generalisable to other times and places in the broader early medieval period. One objective of my work was to show that evidence – written and excavated – needed to be kept rigidly within its geographical and chronological context.
The second issue was that this manifestation was related to those aspects of status which were of importance in producing the burial evidence itself: in other words, they only related to aspects of identity which were made visible when a death created tensions within or between families that needed to be smoothed over via the burial ritual. I suggested, for example, that while the deaths of women over 40, or old people did not case this kind of stress and thus were not marked with the sorts of display appropriate to other groups, status and respect might have been manifested in other ways, such as the construction of the tomb. It did not necessarily mean that there were no forms of higher status available to people of those age-groups.
The fortunate thing about working on Merovingian Gaul was that there was sufficient written data relating to age, gender, marriage and inheritance, and on ideas about the different stages of the life cycle to compare with the archaeological pattern and, using the two together, produce a rounded image of society and to make the assumption plausible that the images of particular social groups that one might extrapolate from the patterning in the cemetery data could be related to idealised pictures of the social roles and standing of people of those groups.
c. Links and barriers on the social map
The way I moved from the data drawn from the cemeteries, combined with a separate study of the written data for the period, to think about identities and social status was by means of thinking in terms of links and barriers. A link was a shared identity, which could be stressed when trying to forge a bond or common cause with another social actor. A barrier was something that could be raised to stress difference with another person, to create social distance, to reject claims at a common interest, and so on.
To illustrate this I employed a provisional vocabulary of vertical, horizontal and diagonal barriers, to refer to barriers raised by different gender, rank and other aspects such as kin-group ethnicity religion. Every person stands at a unique intersection of these barriers or, better, a space delineated by them on what I called the social ‘map’. In this thinking, I was motivated by a desire to question the assumption that early medieval people only thought of themselves as members of groups; it seemed to me that an individual (I will come back to the issue of individuals or individuality) was always a member of a number of different groups simultaneously.
Someone could be, for example, a young adult male, legally not a slave or half-free person, claiming a Frankish ethnic identity, a Christian, a member of a particular kindred by blood, with certain other kin relations by marriage and other forms fictive kinship, a member of some other person’s household or following.
I used the analogy of choosing to play a card from a ‘hand’ that you had been dealt during a game of cards. Some cards one would have from birth, others might be acquired or lost during the course of a life-time, or even changed for others. An identity in this context would be one of these cards, ‘played’ in social interaction. It would raise a barrier or stress a likeness or bond depending upon the aim of the individual.
We could, to take a specific historical example, look at the relations between Gregory of Tours and the count of Tours, Leudast, which Gregory describes in his Histories. The two had many shared identities or statuses but also a number of different ones. As things were, they chose to stress the things that emphasised difference, but they could instead, had they so desired, have focused on the things they had in common.
What I wanted to do with this model, however, was not just to stress the agency of the people of the time but also find a way of explaining change through time, because it was quite clear that things did change during the Merovingian period.
To this end I employed the work of the French sociologist, ethnologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and the British sociologist Anthony Giddens. Bourdieu’s ‘theory of practice, especially the concept of the Habitus, and Giddens’ concept of structuration seemed especially helpful in thinking about the relationship between agency, structures and rules.
What seemed especially pertinent was the stress laid by these two thinkers on the ways in which structures generate action as well as constraining it. The structures or the rules were themselves created by the cumulative knowledge of what the correct or the wrong way was for a person of one ‘identity’ to relate to someone of another specified ‘identity’. Thus, implications of the ‘barriers’ on the ‘map’ were in effect performed by people. Every modification that was accepted rather than chastised, however subtle and whether towards a weakening or strengthening of divides, added itself to a ‘memory bank’ of correct interactions. The nature of identities and the barriers they raised, their social worth or the sorts of status they brought and in which situations, was thus constantly renegotiated, however subtly. The ‘map’, therefore, was more or less impossible to fix in a particular form.
4. A critique of all that
a. I now want to critique that position and point out some areas where it was problematic – if you haven’t spotted them already! First of all, it was a very functional way of thinking. Much of the model was sociological – Weberian, with a dash of Gary Runciman and Michael Mann – in its inspiration and formulation and was concerned with how people achieve aims vis-à-vis other people. It was concerned with status and power in that perhaps slightly confrontational fashion. It was principally a theory of status, value, worth and social roles.
b. Following on from that, the model seemed to work according to the idea that identity was a stable entity that could be communicated more or less unproblematically in social relations. It implied that identities were not only things that you had but also things that you were in a fairly straightforward way.
c. This meant that there was a sense of free choice in the deployment of identity, as is clear in the card-playing analogy. You picked an identity and invoked the power that went with it in achieving your aims.
d. This implied a limited thinking about what power was, restricted simply to inter-personal relations and with a strictly utilitarian focus. This limitation should have been clear from a closer study of some of the theoretical works that I based my thinking on.
e. What an identity was, therefore, was not properly critiqued or theorised. Given that it was explicitly claimed in Settlement and Social Organisation that social change were sought in the ‘interplay of identities’ this was quite a serious problem but I don’t think that this was untypical. A great deal of work in early medieval studies, historical and archaeological, over the past twenty years, has been overtly concerned with identity but with similarly little theorisation. It similarly sees identity as an unproblematic category.
f. Finally, I think I was too concerned with the notion of the individual, as opposed to the member of a group. As I noted earlier, I wanted to query the idea that medieval people only thought of themselves as members of collectives, but I think that I moved to far in the direction of the individual. This – the individual – is a notion that I would now reject as a product of modern western capitalist thinking. I do not accept that medieval people had no notion of themselves other than as group members, and I continue to see them as each standing at the intersection of a number of different groups, but I think that the notion of identity itself undercuts the idea of individuality. As I will come back to discuss, the idea of an identity implies something shared with others. As the Argentinian philosopher Miguel Benasayag has written in his critiques of the idea of the individual, these shared identities act as parts of the self which reaches out to incorporate others. For this and other reasons to which I will return, the social actor is very much ‘dividual’, that is to say the social self can be divided into a number of dimensions.
g. I do not wish to suggest that the things stressed in my earlier thinking on this subject do not matter or are wholly wrong, but that they need to be re-thought and built upon or refined.
5. Philosophical Approaches
a. If the theory I was working with in the 1990s and 2000s was mostly sociological in its inspiration, the work I have drawn upon more recently, in revising it, has been much more heavily based upon philosophy and, to some extent, psychoanalysis. These approaches have been very important for my own work, because they have pointed up the shortcomings not only of my own work but also of early medieval studies in general.
b. Michel Foucault
The first approach that I want to mention is the one that I still need to think most about. This might seem odd, given that the work of Michel Foucault has been ‘domesticated’ by historians and archaeologists for so many years now, to the extent that in many areas historians mention Foucauldian thinking as a preamble to critiquing and moving beyond it. It has almost become a mainstream, fairly traditional approach.
I read some Foucault early on in my research but I appear to have taken his ideas on board rather more in my general thinking about the world than in my actual academic work. Yet there are at least two main areas where I need to revisit Foucault and make more explicit use of his thinking. The first concerns power and discourse. The conceptualisation of power in my early work, as I said a moment ago, is too narrowly utilitarian and directly, consciously interpersonal. Such power exists, of course, and it is the power one notices, but if I had made more use of Foucault’s thinking on discourse and how networks of power exist in the very ways in which the world is organised and spoken about, and about how a social actor positions him or herself, this would have modified that view of interpersonal action in important ways. I am currently working upon a study of western Europe around 600 and, although this period of change – and its importance – was something that I had recognised and spoken about in the early 1990s, it occurs to me now that it might more helpfully be examined, partly at least, in Foucauldian terms as a change in episteme. The bases upon which the world was classified and in which those classifications were imbued with power changed importantly in the late sixth century.
The second area where I have recently realised that I need to take Foucault more into account is the body. As with the networks of unspoken power, this is something that really ought to have been apparent from the reading I did of Bourdieu. One of the key elements of Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is that it is spatial and bodily; it is not a simple matter of being a particular category; one occupies space and disposes one’s body in such a way as to create that identity or category. Similarly, the way that space is organised produces identities. I will come back to these issues of ‘bio-power’.
c. Jacques Lacan
More significant for the ways I have revised my thinking about identity in recent years has been the work of the psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan. Lacan’s work has been influential in many areas of the humanities, most notably, perhaps, in literature and tends to produce almost hysterical reactions on the part of historicists whenever his name is mentioned. It was largely this sort of reaction that led me to suspect that Lacan must have something to say that was worth reading, if only to see what all the fuss was about!
The important thing that I have taken away from reading Lacan and especially work by Lacanians like Slavoj Zizek, is the way that an identity is not something that one can be said to be or to possess but something that one wants to be or possess. Identity, therefore, is a motion towards an ideal, which one never reaches. What matters here for the study of society and the interplay of social actors is that that ideal is not simply a matter of being what you want to be but also of trying to be what you think other people expect of people in that role. Thus, in a much quoted aphorism, Lacan said that a fool who thinks he is a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he is a king. What he meant is that a king is not something one can simply be by virtue of occupying a particular place in society, but it is constituted by the web of correct behaviours that make up ‘being a king’: how one is expected to behave and how people will behave towards you. I hope that you can see how this makes for an important modification to the way I thought about social interaction earlier. It is no more about the instrumental deployment of an identity in a situation by one agent with regard to or at the expense of another. This is a significant modification of the model I set out earlier. It adds in a sense of constraint that in some ways can be assimilated with the Foucauldian ideas I described a few minutes ago. What Lacan calls the field of the Symbolic, the world of language, of signifiers, is what he also calls the Big Other. The Big Other is the ‘they’ in the question ‘what do they want of me?’ refers to. You could also elide it with the notion of ‘society’ in the model I proposed earlier: structures made up of what people think are the expected correct modes of behaviour.
d. Jacques Derrida
Most of all, though, my work has been influenced since 2009 or so by reading the work of Jacques Derrida. As far as identity is concerned, the insights of Derrida that I found most helpful were those that form the very bedrock of his philosophy: that meaning is inherently unstable; that there is no point of origin where a concept is self-identical. If we are thinking about identity, as we are, then this point is of particular importance. It can be taken alongside the Lacanian (and other) ideas I just discussed to emphasise the point that the identity, or the ego ideal, towards which one is moving in social interactions, is inherently unstable (I think Lacan would have disagreed with this but we can leave that to one side). It complements the Lacanian thinking in seeing the world as a world of interconnected signs in what Derrida would have called a textual sense. It is a collection of signifiers and Derrida showed that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is slippery and cannot be fixed. Most importantly, the meaning of the identity in question is always rounded out by its position vis-à-vis all the others; put another way, any identity aways has traces of its opposites, its ‘constitutive other’. To give an example from the period I study, the notion of what a Roman was (and how a proper Roman behaved), was constituted in part by the notion of what a non-Roman (a barbarian) was and how they behaved. There is always a level of difference behind the concept, against which even the most original conceptualisation has to be put. This is what is meant when I say that there was no stable fixed point of meaning for an identity; no point where it was identical and coextensive with itself.
It is important to correct the misapprehension – often put about by people who do not seem to have read Derrida – that Derrida was some sort of nihilistic linguistic idealist who said that ‘anything goes’ or that any reading is as good as any other. There have been few readers of texts more careful and attentive than Jacques Derrida. What Derrida was saying is that, to use a geometrical metaphor, the coordinates of any given system can all remain in place relative to each other if one accepts the set of meanings that ground that system, at its point of origin, but that at some point the acceptance of those meanings is a choice based upon something other than empirical data. The point of origin is therefore not fixed and stable.
The other key aspect of Derridian thought, as far as identity is concerned, is his work on ‘performatives’. This is especially relevant as it dealt with linguistic philosophy about statements that made something so in the act of saying them: the phrase ‘I do’ in a marriage ceremony, for example, or ‘I pronounce you man and wife’, or ‘I name this child Jacques’, or ‘I crown you King of England’. These are statements where the truth described by the statement was created by the statement itself. Analytical philosophers wanted to have this as a fixed category of truth-statement, so you can see why Derrida, with his interest in truth or meaning never being coextensive with itself, found it interesting.
Derrida’s argument – in a nutshell – was that there was never a point where you could be sure that a truth was created by the statement; there was always scope for miscommunication, deliberate or otherwise, and play. There was always room for meanings to slide. If you want to go beyond linguistic philosophy into the realm of social history then the implications are quite clear and can tally with some of the points made earlier. For one thing, they add conceptual depth to our understanding of how social structures are impossible to fix in a particular mode. It gives us a way of understanding how epistemes, in Foucault’s terms, can change (something which Foucault had difficulty accounting for, rather than just describing)
e. Judith Butler
This led on to the work of Judith Butler, who developed the idea of performativity, especially in gender identity. Butler’s work problematises the ideas that there is a meaningful difference in terms of experience between sex and gender, or that gender is the social construction of sex. Her work is important in stressing how we perform not simply gender but our sex as well, and that there is really no time when we experience the two as separate things. In an archaeological context, Butler’s philosophy is interesting to engage with because we have the biological and the cultural evidence to work with. This allows us to explore areas where the skeletal data for ‘sex’ and the material cultural evidence for ‘gender’ do not seem to coincide. This has been important for my own work, in questioning traditional ideas about early medieval sex and sexuality. The branch of theory known as ‘Queer Theory’, which Butler’s early work played a big part in establishing, has also been important in thinking about ideas of gender and sexuality. We might be able to think about multiple readings of the data, dominant and subversive ways of seeing the idealised pictures presented in the cemetery data, which were available to contemporaries and which further problematises the stable transmission of information about the subjects of burials.
I have also been interested in other works about the problems of the term ‘community’, when associated with ‘identity’ but I do not have time to discuss them. Overall, what my thinking since 2009-10 has done is to complicate what had been too functional and straightforward a picture but in a way that I find productive. Many of the bare bones of the initial theory would remain in place. I still think the dimensions of identity are valid and the notion of the interplay of identities in local politics has some value for some purposes. So too does the reflexive relationship between structure and action. The idea of performance is underlined and extended however. We have added extra levels to the description and analysis, resulting in the possibilities of a ‘thicker’ historical anthropology or sociology of early medieval communities. Furthermore, and here this links with other thinking that I have done, we can envisage the outcomes of socio-political action not simply in terms of the achievement or denial of aims but also, moving away from the Grand Narratives beloved of students of the past, historical and archaeological, as unintended, accidental, ironic outcomes.
6. Mechanisms of change and (attempted) stasis
a. In the last part of my lecture, I will home in on the cemeteries of northern Gaul in the earlier Merovingian period to examine possibilities of examining change, and perhaps look at a couple of interesting examples, where multiple readings are possible.
b. I have said something already about how social structures can change through the constant interplay of identities. I started off by saying that we can imagine social structure as a mental image of how the correct modes of behaviour between all the different categories on the social map. This means that it is a cumulative performance. And yet, as I said, it is very difficult to attempt to maintain that structure in any sort of ideal form. There are means by which people might actively try to modify it, through the subtle infraction of the rules, and strategies such as humour, for testing the strength of boundaries or barriers and for retreating from difficult situations when such attempts are met with a strongly negative response.
c. There are also mechanisms by which the situation changes simply through the demands of everyday coexistence. In a society like that of northern Gaul, with probably few slaves dwelling in households alongside their owners, it might have been impractical to police all the harsher boundaries between slave and free all of the time, something that might explain the Laws’ repeated concerns about slave-free marriage.
d. In addition to those factors, which I discussed 20 years ago, we have to add the dimensions of miscommunication and slippage, and the fact that any social actor’s performance of an identity is not a straightforward enactment of a fixed set of roles but something constrained by the social actor’s own expectations as well as by the potential reactions of other agents. This is another way of seeing each person as caught in a web of power relations, not as a free agent, as was probably too strongly implied in my early work. The bases of legitimate social power usually lead people to believe that it is correct for them to behave in a particular way towards someone who stresses an identity associated with authority or another form of higher status, not that they should try and challenge that authority or difference in status. Actions designed to produce one outcome might produce another one entirely.
e. If we examine the cemeteries of northern Gaul we can perhaps see some of these slippages through time. One area where this might be possible is in the gradual spread of the custom of furnished burial itself, from a small number of families of apparently high local standing to, eventually, most of the archaeologically-visible community (visible in the large cemeteries of the sixth century). What seems to have begun as a means of cementing the local standing of locally-important families became a frequently competitive rite in which families strove to maintain and perhaps enhance their local standing, preserve or remake relationships through the display of their ability to bury the dead with the appropriate attention.
f. Another area where slippage might be visible is in the material construction of gender. In Frankish burials of the sixth century, plate- or plaque-buckles are generally found in masculine graves – something which tallies with what we know of the symbolism of the belt in late and post-imperial contexts. Around the end of the sixth century though we begin to observe them in feminine burials. As they begin to appear in the graves of women, the plaque-buckles in male burials get larger and more decorated, in response. As a symbol is taken over by a different group from that with which it was first associated, we can observe a response aimed at maintaining a distinction.
g. In thinking about more significant change, that period around 600 is especially significant, not east because it seems to result from the sort of fundamental change that resulted in a major disruption of the webs of power alluded to earlier. The bases of status, authority and identity were seriously challenged after the Wars of the Emperor Justinian and resulted in a whole new set of ideas, that can be seen in a number of areas, not least gender, ethnicity, aristocracy, the various grades of freedom.
h. I have discussed the slippage in the meaning of status an identity, which I have argued is inevitable. Might one at least attempt to preserve some stability in the meaning of identities? Here I think the most obvious area is in the social use of space. In the Roman period (and others, of course) the élite lived in separate rural dwellings with elaborate approach routes and imposing reception rooms. In these circumstances a clear frame was provided for social interaction and the performance of identity, which formalised and made clear the norms and expectations involved. Areas of informal interaction were clearly marked off.
i. Outside what we can see of early medieval churches, however, this aspect is less easy to find in sixth-century Northern Gaul. Settlements are not very archaeologically visible and those that we know do not seem to be particularly clearly differentiated. As far as one can see, there was much less use of space in the Roman fashion. Interactions between different groups do not seem to have been as tightly governed in that fashion – perhaps even in the royal court. This meant in important ways that identity was potentially being performed in the communal gaze almost all of the time that one was outside the house. This must have meant that interactions could take place in all sorts of settings. This, I think, is one reason why so much effort appears to have been lavished upon the manifestation of social identity in costume in this period. The barriers or social distances and the correct, expected norms of behaviour involved in interactions were flagged up by costume.
It is almost certainly the case that the inhabitants of sixth-century northern Gaul did not think of themselves in terms of many – perhaps most – of the categories that I have discussed here, although some of those aspects of their identity were remarked upon and thought of as important. Nevertheless, even if entirely modern in its framing, I think that, if theorised in sophisticated fashion, the concept of identities and their interplay provides a valuable means of analysing past societies and, on that basis, thinking about the present.