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The early historians who questioned whether the barbarians were oppressors or liberators

Historians in the News
tags: Fall of Rome



Paul Fouracre is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Manchester.

Historians, it seems, like to complicate things. This is certainly the case with the early history of the states that formed in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ian Wood’s recent book, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (2013), shows how the formation of the states that followed Rome was argued about for centuries, sometimes fiercely, according to the national concerns of each generation of historians. But Wood also shows how this subject was always discussed within a narrow range of agreed terms: Rome fell, barbarians took over and new states formed in the conquered areas, taking their names from the conquerors, thus England from the Angles, France from the Franks and Lombardy from the Lombards. (Other states would not quite fit this pattern because, like Ostrogothic Italy or Visigothic Spain, they inconveniently died out or changed their names or, like Germany, had not been part of the Roman Empire.)

What historians had traditionally disagreed about was whether these changes were for the better or for the worse. Had Roman rule been so oppressive that its end was a ‘good thing’? Were the barbarians thus liberators or were they the oppressors who destroyed the protection of Roman law and made themselves into a privileged elite? Where was Christianity in all this: a baleful influence, as Gibbon thought, or the only thing that saved civilisation? Round and round these discussions went and in the successive cycles we see the development of modern thought about national identity, social structure, fairness and, of course, about the place of religion in society. The same questions may have produced different answers but they were always asked of the same narrative sources, as if the latter were simple straightforward accounts of what happened. For this post-Roman period threw up some great historians and each of them seemed to be writing a kind of national history of those barbarian peoples who went on to form states.

We have Jordanes, who wrote a history of the Goths in Italy (albeit after the demise of their rule); Gregory of Tours, who wrote what was perceived to be a history of the Franks; Paul the Deacon’s history of the Lombards; and, most familiar to us, Bede’s history of the English. It is these works that are the sources of many of our images of barbarian rule: King Clovis of the Franks smashing in the head of a greedy warrior; the fair queen Rosamond forced to drink from a cup formed out of her father’s skull;  Bede’s story of the conversion of King Edwin and so on.

From the middle of the 20th century onwards this familiar treatment of the sources began to unravel and the picture became more complicated as the terms of the traditional discussion began to be found wanting:  did the Roman Empire actually ‘fall’? Were there single groups of barbarians who went on to found states in their image? Can the entities that followed the Roman Empire be called ‘states’ at all? First of all, in the 1930s Henri Pirenne challenged the notion that it was Germanic barbarians who brought about the end of the ancient world; Pirenne put this down to the breakdown of Mediterranean trade, following the Arab conquests. More recently that breakdown has been put three centuries earlier, following archaeological data, but the idea remains the same: that the barbarians had little to do with the end of ancient Rome. Chris Wickham’s monumental Framing of the Early Middle Ages (2005) develops this idea to show that it was the decline of taxation following the breakdown of trade that really changed things. Equally important has been the challenge to the traditional narrative. In a path-breaking work entitled The Narrators of Barbarian History (1988) Walter Goffart argued that Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede and Paul the Deacon were in no way the ‘national’ historians they had been assumed to be. Quite simply, they were not reliable witnesses when it came to post-Roman states based on barbarian groups, for each historian had his own agenda in writing and each actually knew very little about the peoples they were supposedly championing. Goffart, like Pirenne, was writing the barbarians out as main players in the ending of the Roman World but he went further in suggesting that the very notion of the Germanic barbarian was a much later construct. ...


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