03.12.08, Gillett, ed., On Barbarian Identity

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Bonnie Effros

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.008


Gillett, Andrew, ed.. On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages. Series: Studies in the Early Middle Ages vol. 4. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2002. Pp. xxiv, 265. ISBN: 2-503-51168-6.

Reviewed by:
Bonnie Effros
State University of New York, Binghamton

In a volume derived mainly from sessions held at Kalamazoo in 2000, Andrew Gillett has brought together a number of provocative essays on the timely topic of ethnogenesis. Citing the dearth of English-language critiques of the foundations of this field, the subject being dominated by German-language publications, Gillett has sought to remedy the balance with a mix of pieces by both senior scholars and those more recently active in the area. Most of the volume's historically based participants might be identified as members of the "Toronto school," two-thirds of the archaeological contributions come from the "Freiburg school," whereas the brunt of the criticism has fallen on the "Vienna school," namely Reinhard Wenskus, Herwig Wolfram, and Walter Pohl. The last was granted the opportunity to respond to the papers near the conclusion of the collection.

The crux of the debate, as presented by Gillett in his introduction, lies in whether and to what degree it is possible to solicit information about ethnic identity in the early Middle Ages from written and material sources. In his view, Wenskus' work from 1961 and its reliance above all on the role of elites in the maintenance of group traditions (Traditionskern) made few advances from the pre-war studies of antiquities in a variety of disciplines related to germanische Altertumskunde (3-6). Yet, in seeking to parallel Wenskus' methodology with the ideological distortions of Gustaf Kossinna's racist works in anthropology from the early decades of the twentieth century, Gillett has conflated vastly different theoretical approaches. To suggest that Wenskus' belief in the existence of Germanic identity, however dated these ideas might seem today, shared much at all with Kossinna's racial theories of culture-provinces seems more an attempt to generate conflict than to stimulate meaningful debate on such important issues.

The contributions of Walter Goffart and Alexander Callander Murray focus on the question of Germanic memories of their past. Goffart argues against the existence of Traditionskern and suggests instead that the origin stories presented by Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and others, reflected far more about the epoch in which these authors wrote than the events they purported to describe (25). Such concepts are largely convincing as they were in Goffart's magisterial The Narrators of Barbarian History (1988). Yet in characterizing the work of Wenskus and Wolfram as pre- war racial theory in sheep's clothing (31), Goffart has misrepresented their arguments. Even more perplexing is Murray's extension of this attack to the work of Pohl, whose interest in the work of Pierre Bourdieu is attributed by Murray to a desire to hide older ideas behind a cloak of more respectable French sociology! (41) Oddly, in a stunning reversal, Murray then turns against the work of Patrick Geary, who proposed twenty years ago that ethnicity was largely a political construct. If I have understood his presentation correctly, Murray here actually suggests that, "ethnic association was something one was born into..." (58). This approach seems far closer to pre-war ideology than any recent publications of the members of the Vienna school I have encountered to date.

Michael Kulikowski rightly asserts the great shortcomings of the primary sources upon which ethnogenesis theory is based. He is not confident that we can get behind the written texts to discover the realities of barbarian collectives, and thus advocates great caution in their application to concepts as basic as the composition of Gothic armies due to the biases of the Roman reports in which they were described. Andrew Gillett, too, suggests the fairly uncommon use of ethnic terms related to titulature in the early medieval kingdoms. He argues in opposition to proponents of ethnogenesis that ethnic identity was not the key discourse for the formation of political entities; it did not function in a similar manner to Christian or imperial discourse (87). In his careful survey of over 1500 examples of chancery and non-chancery documents, coins, seal rings, grave inscriptions, etc., just over 100 include ethnic markers. Interestingly, Gillett observes that the documents in which they do appear are fairly late, including Frankish charters regarding royal land and the Lombard law codes, and he proposes that we interpret them not as assertions of ethnic identity but as reactions to internal divisions (115). While Gillett's contention that, "military force, not ambiguous ideology of ethnicity, established and maintained the barbarian elites," (121) is difficult to defend since both likely contributed to their long term success, his essay has shed much light on the nuances of ethnic terminology outside of the historical works most frequently applied to such objectives.

Derek Fewster's essay, the last in this section and one that might have fit better with the pieces linking archaeological interpretation with political developments in France, German and Central and Eastern Europe, delivers a revealing expos/e of Finnish nationalism and representations of the Middle Ages. The appeal of the history of the first millennium as derived from archaeological and literary sources was that it might be manipulated to justify the legitimate return of Finland in the twentieth century to the independence that it allegedly enjoyed during this purported golden age. This article shares many similarities with Florin Curta's critique of Slavic archaeology, particularly as practiced in the Soviet Union. With scholars in this case using comparative linguistics and ceramics as a means of identifying ethnic groups, Curta draws attention to the vicissitudes of research in the field that largely reflected the changing political landscape in the places where these studies were written or popularized. Curta observes that despite the fact that almost all new evidence in Slavic studies is archaeological, scholars have rarely used it to challenge the Romantic parameters set by linguists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He suggests that this step must be taken if any significant advances are to be made in the field.

The two other archaeological contributions of the collection likewise reveal how much younger scholars, even in Germany, have begun to change a discipline defined by great methodological conservatism. Sebastian Brather has questioned the longstanding assumption that archaeological cultures may be tied to specific ethnic groups. He points out that the sharp distinctions that scholars such as Frank Siegmund and others have proposed existed between cemeteries posited to belong to the Franks and Alemanni have more to do with scientific classifications derived from written sources rather than the finds themselves (154). The differences in artifact styles and distributions are in fact rather slight, and scholars draw more attention to them by focusing exclusively on one or two features out of a multitude of possible aspects that might otherwise be discussed. More broadly, Brather argues that belief in archaeological cultures is mainly the consequence of the desire to impose order on a vast amount of material evidence. The changes in the archaeological record, by contrast, tend to be incomplete and support cultural continuity more than the type of discrete periodization favored by those who support the concept of culture-provinces. While it is clear that too much emphasis has been placed on the expression of ethnic identity in early medieval grave assemblages, Brather's contention that archaeology is unsuited to interpret any of the subtleties of ideological symbolism (even with the aid of historical sources) (169-170) seems difficult to embrace in its entirety.

Hubert Fehr's article concentrates on scholars' assumptions about the categorization of early medieval graves found in Gaul as either Gallo-Roman and Frankish graves: the former group being associated with a pronounced lack of grave goods other than ceramic and glass vessels, and the other being identified as including artifacts such as armament, buckles, and brooches. Interestingly, in his study, Fehr focuses on German scholarship of the interwar period and the two decades that followed. The late 1920s and 1930s saw the arrival of the first academically trained archaeologists in the field (181); they had the support of the German government, which at this time was eager to show via material finds that large parts of northern Gaul (some of which had been lost in the Treaty of Versailles) had historically been occupied by Germanic people (184). What is clear is that advocates of such theories including Franz Petri and Hans Zeiss placed great trust in the role of Tracht (ethnic costume) to identify the inhabitants of various row grave cemeteries.

Largely ignored in France in subsequent years as the flawed product of ideologically directed research programs of the Nazis, these inquiries nonetheless had an immense impact on both future German and French scholarship on early medieval cemeteries. Surviving the war largely unscathed in the writings of Joachim Werner, whose highly successful career bridged the 1940s, this methodological approach became a mainstream idea in the course of the generation that followed. Despite the fact that much of the historical and legal bases for such claims have now been brought into question, these ideas continue to occupy a dominant place in early medieval archaeology. It is a shame that Fehr did not take the opportunity to address the rebirth in popularity of such ideas among archaeologists and anthropologists active in France like Michel Kazanski and Luc Buchet, who have been strong proponents of the view that Tracht and even osteological remains constitute reliable indicators of ethnic identity.

Finally, the third section of this volume serves as a response to the preceding papers. Charles Bowlus' piece largely serves to reinforce the critiques proposed by the historians in the volume; he argues that ethnogenesis theory imposes more methodological restraints than assistance on those seeking to make of the complex evidence for early medieval society. Wallter Pohl's response likewise focuses mainly on the historical contributions rather than addressing the issues raised in the archaeological section of the book. Pohl rightly questions some of the underlying tenets of the historians' criticisms of ethnogenesis since he observes that the model under attack is outdated and that some of the pieces do not sufficiently take into account advances made in the field since Wenskus' 1961 monograph. Leaving such issues aside, however, he suggests that what lies at the heart of the volume is the basic doubt shared by all of the contributors, that written (or archaeological) sources can shed light on traditions or ideologies that were largely transmitted orally (222). While he does not advocate belief in the existence of the kind of Traditionskern advocated by Wenskus, Pohl does think that the bits and pieces of oral tradition that found their way into later historical sources did have some truth to them (233). In some ways, Pohl's contribution is thus the most optimistic in the volume, since it remains faithful to the idea that careful reading of the primary sources may still have a significant contribution to make about power structures and identity in the early Middle Ages.

This stimulating volume is bound to bring discussions of early medieval ethnogenesis to a broader English-speaking audience in the coming years. If anything disturbed me about this collection, however, it was the mocking tone of the first few pieces of the collection and the personal animosities expressed in their footnotes. This approach does little to advance the arguments of their authors, and served instead to partially overshadow the scholarly merits of both their articles and those of the other contributors to the volume.

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Bonnie Effros

State University of New York, Binghamton