Empires and Barbarians, Part II

19 Jun

At long last I’m ready to follow up my Empire and Barbarians Part 1 post of well over a year ago in which I discussed a portion of Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. If that initial post had died a quiet death I would have happily left this alone. However it has consistently been the second most read post on this blog, after my World Lit Only By Fire review. 1

I need to start this post by explaining why I did not follow up in a more timely manner. I’ve previously mentioned that I tend to review one of two types of books; those I really enjoyed and those that really ticked me off. In the case of this book, I really enjoyed the first three chapters. Heather provides a great deal of evidence, he copiously cites sources, and while I disagree with some specifics, I was willing to accept that the Barbarian groups were moving toward greater cohesion during the later Roman Empire and that this had been at least somewhat through their interactions with the Empire itself.

And so I made a mistake. This blog was about three weeks old, I had nothing that was leaping at me to talk about and I didn’t want to begin my blogging existence by waiting several weeks between posts. So, after reading three chapters and enjoying them, I decided I’d post comments in sections. I will not do this again. It’s fine for books which are essay compilations, not for a single book written by one author centered around a dominant theme or themes. After finishing the book, I ended up with the “just OK” feeling about it. I still think the first three chapters were solid. The next four, however, have substantial problems and for the final three chapters he covers Eastern Europe, for which I’ll recommend Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs, and Scandinavia. I lost my impetus for finishing the review when this book which started off as very good ended up being what I consider to be mediocre. I’ve started this post several times and I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to finish this off.

I will not be providing a detailed examination of chapters 4-7 in this post. Instead I’ll point out a couple of serious issues I have with Heather’s arguments and how these have impacted my opinion of the book.

There are two pretty substantial problems with chapters 4-7 (I’m ignoring 8-10 – please read something by Curta or someone with more expertise in that area). One is Heather’s use of evidence which often involves conjecture and sheer appeals to logic, without much basis in evidence. I’m not going to cover this here because I hope one day to do a series of posts about how different historians see and use the same evidence to reach (often) very different conclusions.

The second area, which I believe will be much simpler for me to summarize, is where Heather decides to group aspects of migrations where, to me, the evidence for this grouping is thin. I hope this will give people a clear idea why I am fairly lukewarm on this book. It’s OK to read, but read it with some other volumes covering the same period/event. You will find very different uses of evidence and conclusions by different historians. I’ve found this to be very interesting which is why I hope to explore it further one day.

To summarize, in this book Heather’s overall theme is to argue for a fairly robust theory of barbarian migrations occurring toward and immediately following the end of the Roman Empire. These migrations involved large, relatively cohesive groups which include family units; not just small raiding parties or large military forces, but women, children, and a relocation of cultures. Others have argued a variety of alternatives for this, among them that these forces were largely military, did not bring their families with them and, once in the lands of the Empire, developed new family units from the resident population.

So leaving aside the actual evidence itself, I’m going to take two examples for what I consider to be flawed logical arguments.

Goths: This is the group which included Alaric’s force which sacked Rome and set up shop in Southern Gaul in 418 where they remained until 507 when they were defeated by Clovis and driven into Spain. Heather argues that this was a very substantial group involving family units and was a large-scale migration of most of the Goths who had lived in Thrace. He then chooses to equate this group, for which we have a fair amount of evidence, with various other groups, for which evidence is lacking. These groups include the Vandals, Alans and Sueves. In essence his argument is that we can reasonably conclude from the evidence that the Goths comprised family groups so it is reasonable to conclude that the same holds true for these other barbarians.

I disagree. While there are serious and substantive disagreements with Heather’s thesis for the family grouping of Alaric’s Goths after leaving Thrace, let’s set those aside for the moment. A significant problem with how Heather presents his argument is, to me, “Many of these points [regarding the Goths] also apply to those other great practitioners of repeat migration: the Rhine invaders of 406,” and, most damning, “Whatever view you form of Alaric’s Goths, therefore, will tend to spill over into your understanding of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves.” (202)

Why? Why must an argument about the Goths, where a fair amount of evidence exists, be automatically applied to these other groups, where evidence is lacking? Why would you take a single example and extrapolate to include multiple other groups? I can accept having evidence for three or four examples and applying it to one or two others where some similarities exist, but don’t give me an argument that because we know a fair amount about one example, this creates a model which must then be applied to multiple others. That line of reasoning is a big problem for me. It’s an attempt to shoehorn everything to fit a single theory, something which to me is a real issue with some historians. 2

And are these other groups so similar to the Goths as to deserve this type of comparison? I don’t believe so. The Goths were allowed to peacefully enter the Empire under a treaty and settle in their lands. There were serious problems after this settlement, but their entrance was permitted by Rome. These other groups had to invade militarily, by force, though in many cases they met with little resistance. To me there’s a substantial difference between the potential makeup of a group entering the Empire peacefully, under terms, and those entering by military means. I think it would be reasonable to believe that these Goths included family units (I have more problems with whole family units following Alaric around) however why would they have accompanied these other groups on a military invasion? I don’t think this comparison works. Now I want to be careful to say that evidence should always trump logic, however Heather’s argument is based on the logic of comparing the Goths with the 406/07 invasion force which crossed the Rhine. So I’m choosing to use logic as a counter. 3

Anglo-Saxons: OK, so I disagree with Heather’s applying his argument based on a single barbarian group, the Goths, to other groups, for the reasons I stated above. But I can at least see where you might get to that point, though I think the reasoning is flawed and inadequate. However Heather also provides a basis for assessing the Anglo-Saxon invasions which I consider very strange, “It starts by thinking a bit harder about that classic case of elite transfer, the Norman Conquest of England.” (298)

Wha-huh? This was the point at which I became disenchanted with this book. Why bring them into this? I know Heather uses them as a contrast (at least here), not a comparison, but this doesn’t work. There is no basis for using two such disparate events in such a way – one might as well use the American invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Norman invasion was different and resulted in different impacts on England, but the two events are so disconnected that I can’t find a reason for using the two together, beyond making a huge stretch to find a way to fit an argument together. If you want a different sort of invasion to compare and contrast, find something which is at least related to the A-S event and involves peoples, including the lands and culture being “invaded”, with some similarities, beyond that of geography.

Later he equates the Norman invasion with barbarians as a whole, including using “Norman analogy” in his discussion of benefits bestowed on immigrants. (350) Here he decides to equate events of the fourth and fifth centuries with those of the 11th; “Among the immigrant groups of the late fourth and the fifth century direct landed rewards from the king may well not have gone further down the social scale than leading members of the higher-grade (free?) warrior class, though its lesser members and even some or all of the lower-status warriors are likely, on the Norman Conquest model, [my emphasis] to have received something from the higher-status warriors to whom they were attached.” (351) Here his error is even more severe as he turns from using the Norman invasion as a point of contrast to a point of comparison. I’m not particularly fond of using pejoratives but this just seems strange, given the disparity in so many specifics between the groups and events involved. Maybe “sloppy” would be the better term. Is it appropriate to compare and contrast events, strategies, tactics, economic/social/legal/political structures, etc., between two cultures or events? Absolutely – but the cultures/events must have some basis, some commonalities which make these comparisons logical. I don’t see these commonalities here.

These are two examples showing why I found this book to contain some serious flaws. Examining Heather’s use of the evidence will reveal others. He disagrees with Florin Curta, who has considerable experience with Eastern Europe, over the Slavs. There may certainly be cases where invading groups contained family units and was more of a migration than others have argued, but this tactic of Heather’s in applying this to all such groups doesn’t work for me, and any equation of the Anglo-Saxon “invasion” and Norman Conquest, even as a point of contrast, seems strange.

Does this mean the book is useless? Absolutely not. As I opened with, this book did not become something I felt compelled to post about based on disgust. I continue to believe that the opening chapters were comprehensive and well done, and that it is reasonable to believe that barbarian groups had become larger, more cohesive and more militarized over time, at least partly due to their interaction with the Empire. Throughout the book Heather provides numerous mentions of primary sources which helped me to develop a reading list. He is also willing to discuss arguments which disagree with his, though I’d suggest that, rather than relying on his portrayal of these arguments, you read them for yourself. In any case, I hope these comments have served two purposes; to explain why these follow-up comments are so late and; to describe some of the substantial flaws I found with later sections of the book.

In essence, do not read this book in a vacuum. I strongly suggest adding Burns(2003), Halsall(2007), Goffart(2006), and James(2009) to your reading list if you are deeply interested in the subject of how Western Europe evolved in the wake of the Roman Empire.

1 I keep hoping a post will replace this as consistently being the most read on this blog. Instead my review is now the number one result when you Google either “A World Lit Only by Fire Review” or “A World Lit Only by Fire Summary.” I suppose I should be happy I’ve done the world or at least some portion of it a service but really – IMO I have many much better, more substantial posts.

2 For another example of this shoehorning, see Walter Goffart’s argument for how barbarians were settled in Roman lands, as argued in Barbarian Tides, pp 119-186. I won’t go into his argument in detail however in essence he argues that this settlement involved barbarians receiving tax revenues rather than lands. He based this in large part on a discussion of the various barbarian law codes. I have most of these (in translation) and read through them while reading this section and while I believe his argument holds up for many successor kingdoms; unless Katherine Fischer Drew (1972) completely screwed up the translation, I don’t see how you can get there for the Burgundians. Just because it doesn’t work for them does not invalidate Goffart’s entire hypothesis however it seems very important to him for all barbarian settlements to have followed the same “tax revenue” model.

3 There are some serious problems, based in evidence, with Heather’s believing Alaric’s force included family units. A glaring example is that once the Visigoths settle in Southern Gaul, they disappear. Not in textual sources, where they are frequently mentioned, but archaeologically. There is almost nothing to distinguish them from the native Gallo-Roman population. They appear to have adopted Roman customs and lifestyles wholesale. If this group had included family units, wouldn’t they have retained their own customs and lifestyles? Wouldn’t women have continued to create their, Gothic, handspun pottery for use in homes? Wouldn’t they have continued their traditional patterns of dress? Their level of integration into Roman society, to the point of becoming archaeologically invisible, is a powerful argument against the Visigoths of 418 being comprised of family units. See, for example, p. 306 of Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski, “Identity and Ethnicity during the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul” in Mathisen and Schanzer, eds., Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World. Surrey, UK: Ashgate (2011). ISBN: 978-0-7546-6814-5.

Burns, Thomas S. Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5

Curta, Florin. The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN: 9-780521-036153.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans. The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; Additional Enactments. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1972). ISBN: 0-8122-1035-2.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8122-3939-3

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-4353-7

Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. London: MacMillan (2009). ISBN: 978-0-333-98975-3

James, Edward, Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600. Harlow, UK: Longman (2009). ISBN: 978-0-582-77296-0.


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6 responses to “Empires and Barbarians, Part II

  1. Historian on the Edge

    June 22, 2011 at 10:36 am

    You should post your piece on different uses of evidence to reach conclusions. I think I read somewhere in the blogosphere – maybe here – that you didn't want me to read it. Well, I take you as a very astute commentator, so fire away! It's those who misrepresent or don't understand what I've said and criticise it that annoy me! I'd actually like to know what your take is. Astute criticism is a good thing.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 22, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I may have written something like that in jest but I don't have a problem with that. I'm a grownup. I hope if I ever write something which looks flawed or just plain wrong-headed, someone lets me know (so far they generally have).I have a working draft I've been returning to now and again but this isn't the kind of thing that "fiddling with" works for. I need to find a couple of days and just dig into it. And at times it may be self-contradictory. I read Walter Goffart's Variorum a little over a year ago. Up to that point my experience with him had mainly been with his recent stuff where IMO he's been a little loose with the evidence. His earlier stuff is GOOD. Thanks for your comment and I'm seriously envious of folks who will be at Leeds. Your Late Antiquity set looks excellent and has a focus I've not seen in sessions at Kalamazoo.

  3. Historian on the Edge

    June 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Goffart has always been a big influence on me, which is why I have been disappointed with his recent work – not so much for what he says as much as for the way he says it. I also think that if you keep pushing a particular line as 'true in all cases' and explaining away the bits that don't fit by saying that things don't necessarily mean what they seem to say, eventually you end up cutting all the solid ground away from underneath you and floating away, free.As to Leeds, thanks. I've alas lost three of my speakers (and two papers), through no fault of their own. Trying to find respondants or replacements, but maybe we'll just have longer discussion instead.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    June 27, 2011 at 10:34 am

    I agree. I don't know why he's expressed so much anger lately at those he disagrees with and, in particular, those who disagree with him. I'm not 100% opposed to expressing strong emotions in print. Sometimes this is necessary, but he seems to have made it a part of his standard repertoire.

  5. Anonymous

    July 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Thanks for another most interesting post. Just to add a further (somewhat related) point: I am at times uncomfortable with Heather's use of the Scandinavian evidence for the purposes of comparison. I should first of all admit that I have not actually read the book and thus cannot but speak in the broadest of brush strokes, but I recall Heather giving a paper on the topic in Cambridge shortly before it's release. Anyway, there he used the DNA evidence from Iceland to the effect that a not inconsiderable proportion of (modern) Icelandic women are of 'Scandinavian' descent to argue that women were often a significant part of early medieval invasion forces (including the fifth-century 'barbarian' invasions).Now, without even getting into the problem of using DNA evidence, it strikes me that there are two major problems with this. Firstly, Iceland was undefended and unpopulated and it is surely much more likely that you'd bring your ladyfolk with you when there was no military opposition and no local women to wed (I pointed this out in questions and, to be fair, Heather was happy to admit this). Secondly, and just as problematically, Heather's presentation seemed to hide the fact that a very substantial porportion of Icelandic women according to these studies (I forget the proportions) were NOT of 'Scandinavian' descent. Indeed, Scandinavian historians were surprised at how small the proportion of women of 'Scandinavian' descent is: if these statistics can be trusted, many of the women must have been brought from Scotland and Ireland – hardly a case of a classic 'folk' migration!-Levi

  6. Curt Emanuel

    July 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Thanks for the interesting comment, Levi.Heather has a chapter, "Viking Diasporas" which I didn't find particularly good. In it, he mentions that DNA evidence shows the following percentages of modern residents descending from Norse ancestors; Shetland – 40%; Orkney – 35% and; Scotland and the Western Isles – 10%. He does not cite DNA evidence for Iceland, not that I could find just now on a cursory scan anyway.If he's going to raise DNA as evidence, it would be nice if he would explain how his Anglo-Saxon migration thesis holds up when most of the DNA studies contradict it, in particular Sykes (who, it appears, he uses for his Orkney & Shetland numbers).Sloppy.


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