Teaching Power and Identity After Rome

The town is bustling; there are new faces everywhere. It is the beginning of semester in St Andrews – a good time to reflect on what it is I’m actually trying to teach my students.

Cold St Andrews Students

Cold St Andrews Students

Medievalists are often haunted at least a little by the ghost of ‘relevance’. Guy Halsall at York was more than a little shocked to discover just before the summer that his perennially popular course on Gregory of Tours (d. 594) had not recruited, blaming market forces and the death of intellectual curiosity. Preference for more modern history is not necessarily new or the preserve of the uninitiated: I read in Ian Wood’s The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages about J. B. Bury (1861-1927), that he “felt particularly attracted to Modern History [in the sense of non-Classical history] because it was more obviously linked to the present”. Plus ça change

Teaching the early Middle Ages is more than a claim that what happened then is directly relevant to the modern world. It is also more than an antiquarian effort to preserve and pass on knowledge about what happened in past civilisations. So what is it?

My own honours-level (i.e. third-year) survey course of the early period is called Power and Identity after Rome. The period after the ‘Fall of West Rome’ has a long and lively history of scholars disagreeing about what really happened and what it was about. Wood’s book just mentioned does a nice job of outlining the political dimensions of these debates, as interpretations were shaped by revolutions, nationalism, religious sentiment and personal competition.

Fustel de Coulanges

Fustel de Coulanges

The sheer number of interpretations is important to bear in mind. Sometimes they emerge because of the discovery or use of new sources; sometimes it is to do with methodology and shifting preconceptions. The Merovingian period looked far more unsettled when historians basically just read funny stories in Gregory of Tours as stories about barbarians and Gallo-Romans. It started to look different when Fustel de Coulanges, more interested in institutional sources, pointed out that Roman-Frankish tensions have little place in our sources. And once Krusch and the Bollandists had edited Merovingian saints’ Lives and scholars from František Graus on had started to do clever things with them, then wider discourses surrounding gender, social status came to light. But still: having the same source base does not mean that there will be the same interpretations.

As the title of the course suggests, a central theme is the way in which communities develop and use identities. Back in 2006, Walter Goffart thought it strange that ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnogenesis’ had come to be so pronounced in scholarship on the early Middle Ages, when it had been so muted in the half century before. His long-standing target was the Vienna School, currently led by Walter Pohl – a scholar who [to reduce a complicated argument too much] Goffart felt believed a bit too much in the extent to which real processes of identity creation could be reconstructed. Goffart himself preferred to see Roman historiographical traditions juxtaposed with peaceful settlement patterns.

This is a good topic to get students into. Arm them with some “origin legends”, some medieval historical writing, and a bit of archaeology, and get them to assess the relative merits of the two sides. Students can quickly find themselves developing critical skills to form cogent arguments on the basis of fragmentary evidence, while working on the ability to make independent judgements. Plus they are engaged in a current debate while doing so, namely what it means for an individual or group to invent, develop or appropriate a particular identity label.

I also like to encourage students to explore the different ways in which “power” is created, used and undermined. Where possible, it is good to do this comparatively, because it highlights the contingency involved. We look at developments in the Frankish and Gothic kingdoms (Iberian and Italian) separately, because when you then reflect on them together you see the differences more clearly. Sometimes this will mean being struck how much more elections seemed to matter to the Lombards than the Franks, although Franks supported their dynasty, the Merovingians, a number of times with public displays of consent.

One story I like to start with is from Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of Columbanus (c. 640). Columbanus, to me, is the great OTT exemplar of a holy man – a wandering, bullish Irishman who won’t compromise on his austere spiritual agenda, while inspiring a generation of young aristocratic sorts to live life differently. At one point, around 609, his fame was such that King Theuderic of Burgundy sought his advice regularly. But Columbanus disapproved of Theuderic having concubines rather than a wife, and encouraged him to reform his domestic arrangements. This did not sit well with Theuderic’s grandmother, the infamous Brundhild, who feared losing influence at court should a proper queen be established. She tried to get Columbanus to bless Theuderic’s illegitimate children and so, surreptitiously, to legitimise the existing domestic situation. Columbanus refused, so Brunhild turned her efforts to turning her grandson against Columbanus. Eventually, after an argument about whether Columbanus was violating tradition by restricting access to the interior of the monastery of Luxeuil, Theuderic had the holy man expelled from his kingdom.

What I like about the story is interplay of different kinds of power. The king, unsurprisingly, has a great claim to high authority. (With tongue only slightly in cheek, one could say “after all: he had long hair and was descended from a sea monster”). But in the domestic sphere, he could be influenced by his grandmother, who herself feared the power a queen could potentially wield against her. In spiritual matters, the king could be influenced a social outsider who had inspired people in his kingdom and through that attracted resources such as Luxeuil. There’s anxiety about the faceless power of traditions and law threatened by the outsider with regards to marriage practice and the treatment of monastic lands. And in all this, we should not forget the power of history: we know this story only because it is relayed to us by Jonas of Bobbio – and it is pretty firmly established that part of his agenda was to emphasise the moral bankruptcy of Brunhild’s line because it had, in 613, lost all power to the rival Merovingian faction descended from Brunhild’s arch-rival Fredegund.

(I should probably see what Yaniv Fox’s much-anticipated new book Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul (Cambridge, 2014) says about all this, but at the time of writing, no copy has found its way to my desk…).

Exploring the past is often to enter an intellectual gymnasium. It is a place to practice critical and analytical skills, while one learns to be forensic in one’s approach to information and the construction of arguments. It is a place in which the imagination can be used and trained. Hopefully my students can take the skills they develop and do interesting things with them.