The Medieval Review 10.10.09

Halsall, Guy. Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul: Selected Studies in History and Archaeology, 1992-2009. Brill's Series on the Early Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xvi, 417. $199 ISBN 978-90-04-17999-8. .

Reviewed by:

Bailey Young
Eastern Illinois University

The eleven chapters and five commentaries assembled in this volume offer an intellectual autobiography in mid-career. Since he studied them "as an equal combination at the University of York" Guy Halsall has been inspired by the "profound conviction that a rounded appreciation of the early medieval period can only come through knowing about history and archaeology". The often rocky relationship between the two, in Britain, is the first of the four general themes treated in this book, consisting of an essay "Archaeology and Historiography" (first published in 1997) followed by an updating commentary "Archaeology and its Discontents." The discontents are traced to the impact in England, from about 1970 of the American "New Archaeology" (a.k.a. "processual archaeology"), aggressively flaunting the banner of a social science grounded in material culture and anthropology while declaring emphatic independence of the "biased" written sources of historians. Despite the more recent development (notably at Cambridge) of a "post-processual archaeology", whose interests overlap with cultural history, Halsall laments that a "one-sided polemic" persists. British archaeologists suspect historians of disrespecting them and are woefully ignorant of historical method; on the other hand "historians are nowadays well aware that they do not have the skills to analyse archaeological data". The way out of this impasse, Halsall suggests, can come only "when archaeology has developed a realistic sense of its potentials" and can engage with coherence and self-confidence in dialogue with historians. His own embrace of the "post-processual" paradigm, which emphasizes the role of ritual and material symbols in creating new identities and competing for power, has grounded the historian sufficiently in archaeological theory to dialogue vigorously with them.

As the book title reminds us, Halsall is chiefly known for his work on Merovingian Gaul. Part Two "Un-Roman Activities: Cemeteries and Frankish Settlement" is ironically titled as he argued provocatively in his 1992 scholarly debut article ("The origins of the Reihengraberzivilisation: Forty years on," Chapter Two in this volume) that row-grave cemeteries with their furnished burials reflect not an imported Germanic funerary ritual, as generations of scholars and textbook writers have held, but a new (provincial) Roman response by local elites to declining Imperial power in the West. He further develops his revisionist arguments in a 2000 paper (here Chapter Three, "The so-called Foederatengraber reconsidered"), holding it a fundamental error to impute any ethnic significance to an innovation which reflected internal politico-social change. "The prominent families of northern Gaul, for the first time, on the whole, since the Roman Conquest, took to burying themselves with lavish symbols of that local power..." in the form of grave-goods that constitute a "grammar of display." Commentary Two tells us that the original inspiration for this bold hypothesis came from in a graduate seminar and a 1980 paper of mine which critiqued the basis for assigning an external "Germanic" origin to the grave-goods ritual that appeared in the Western Empire and its margins in the Fourth Century but failed to take what Halsall insists is the logical step of discarding the ethnic interpretation altogether. [1] Though this is not the place to argue the point, I find Halsall's antithesis too schematic, and would refer the interested reader to a still-pertinent article of Patrick Périn for a plausible model of how both ethnic and politico-social self-affirmation could have been factors in the genesis of the furnished burial funerary facies which by the sixth century Halsall agrees is rightly called Merovingian. [2] We also agree that the lavishly furnished and doubtless monumental grave of Clovis's father Childeric, found at Tournai in 1655 and spectacularly re-interpreted since Raymond Brulet's recent excavation of its margins, (the subject Chapter Four which concludes this section) played a key role in the shaping and spreading of burial practices dominated by the new Frankish elites.

The three papers and commentary on the theme "Burials, Rituals and Commemoration" (Part Three) and the four plus commentary of Part Four ("Age and Gender in Merovingian Social Organisation") draw on data assembled and analysed in Halsall's dissertation research on the region of Metz, published as a monograph in 1995. [3] Halsall there defined as the premise of his approach "that cultural practices are deliberate, meaningfully constituted and historically contingent." No doubt, but the devil is in the details: to what extent do (or even can) archaeological data convey original intent? In Chapters Five, Six and Commentary Four of this volume Halsall valiantly grapples with the notions of ritual and material culture as they might apply to the funerary practices of Merovingian communities as apprehended through very unevenly performed and imperfectly published excavations. He argues that the data do not support the old (but stubbornly tenacious) presumptions that funerary ritual here had anything to do with religion or ethnicity (especially Germanic!) but do support other correlations, notably with age and gender. Ritual is symbolic public discourse here driven, Halsall thinks, by competition for local power. Grave-goods are a (to some extent) archaeologically-visible element in a "grammar of display" that includes such "invisible" elements as processions and songs and feasting off-site. This is a useful reminder, and well-grounded in anthropological literature, but when he writes "As stated before, every archaeological component of the rite needs to be seen as the product of a conscious, active choice" (218), a skeptical light flashes. Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, and what looks like "choice" may derive from impulse or chance. Let us say that a pit with ashes and animal bones is reported to have been found near some graves. Is this evidence of funerary feasting? Or of a garbage dump from an earlier Iron Age settlement nearby? Or the remains of a picnic centuries after the cemetery went out of use? Even if a rigorous modern excavator were able prove the pit contemporary with the burials, some degree of fundamental ambiguity as to its meaning would remain. Halsall likes to connect dots with bold hypotheses. Having argued that the Metz area data supports the contention that during the sixth century girls of marriageable age tended to be buried with richer personal ornament than older women he speculates that this signifies their greater value in a society "where marriage alliances were extremely important and daughters thus the linchpins of political strategies. There is probably a link, therefore, between the public nature of a marriageable young woman's life and the "publicity" of the funeral. Her death created some rupture in social relations, which required healing through a demonstration of the family's ability to bury her with appropriate grave-goods" (305). This could be the starting point of a novel! The reading is plausible enough, but still an hypothesis (though Halsall can point to recent work in Germany that supports his case for age and gender correlations with grave-goods). [4] Halsall's interpretation of the Childeric burial is premised on his assumption that Clovis organized it to suit his own purposes: "Clovis used the elaborate burial of his father to recreate a web of social relationships and to establish a right to succeed to a social position" (187). But how do we know that Childeric did not himself make the fundamental decisions in advance, like Browning's Bishop ordering his tomb? Or that senior members of his familia, unknown to history, made the key "active, conscious choices"?

Guy Halsall has never been one to shrink from controversy. When he first discussed his dissertation research at a French conference "the most polite response expressed in open discussion," he tells us, was a counsel of "prudence," adding that it was no doubt not the "done" thing for postgraduates to thus challenge the establishment. This could be an excellent book to use in a graduate seminar devoted to the relationship between archaeology and history in early medieval northwestern Europe. Trained in both fields in the 1980s, when they were coming to grips with methods and questions which continue to drive research, Guy Halsall has kept abreast with developments on the Continent as well as on the Island, as his detailed (and often argumentative and sometimes entertaining) footnotes are a mine. The brash postgraduate is now an authoritative voice on the barbarian invasions and early medieval sources in the New Cambridge Medieval History. But he has lost none of his edge, his scholarly zest for thrusting at established ideas with the lances of new paradigms. The intellectual adventure at the heart of this volume could enthuse a new generation of graduate students, though they would be well advised to heed, also, the counsel of prudence.

-------- Notes:

1. See pp. 131-32 here and B.K. Young, "Le problème franc et l'apport des pratiques funéraires (III-Ve siècles)" in Bulletin de Liason de l'Association francaise d'archéologie mérovingienne 3 (1980), pp. 4-18.

2. Patrick Périn, "A propos de publications récentes concernant le peuplement en Gaule à l'époque mérovingienne: la 'question franque'", dans Archéologie Médiévale XI, 1981, pp. 126-145. For my reservations regarding the Halsall thesis, see Bailey Young, "Rituel funéraire, structure sociale et choix ideologique:le cas mérovingien" in De l'Âge du fer au haut Moyen Âge: Archéologie funéraire, princes et élites guerrières, ed. Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski (Mémoires de l'Association national d'Archéologie mérovingienne XV, 2006), 224, with notes 71-73.

3. Guy Halsall, Settlement and social organization: The Merovingian region of Metz (Cambridge, 1995).

4. Chapter Nine in this volume, "Material Culture, Sex, Gender, Sexuality and Transgression in Sixth-Century Gaul" offers a useful critical discussion that considers the theoretical basis for social construction of gender and recent work in England as well as Germany.