14.03.06, Pohl and Heydemann, eds., Strategies of Identification

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Florin Curta

The Medieval Review 14.03.06

Pohl, Walter and Gerda Heydemann. Strategies of Identification: Ethnicity and Religion in Early Medieval Europe. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xiii, 349. ISBN: 978-2-503-53384-1.

Reviewed by:
Florin Curta
University of Florida

Much has been written recently on ethnicity in the Middle Ages, but the relation between ethnicity and religion has received relatively little attention. The volume under review is evidence both of sensitivity to this need and of serious efforts to remedy it. The book presents the results of a project funded with the Wittgenstein prize of the Austrian Science Fund, which Walter Pohl received ten years ago. Participating in the workshops and the 2009 conference on "visions of community" were scholars from a variety of institutions in Europe and the United States. This volume, however, includes only papers by Austrian scholars affiliated either with the Institute for History or the Institute for Medieval Studies in Vienna. Helmut Reimitz, now a faculty member at Princeton, worked for many years in both institutes.

Walter Pohl's Preface (ix-xiii) and Introduction (1-64) explain that the main point of the collection is that religion has shaped the vocabulary of identity politics in the Middle Ages, an idea of considerable interest for medievalists and historians of modern nationalisms alike. Pohl draws an interesting distinction between ethnicity and ethnic identity. According to him, the former is not "the quality of belonging to an ethnic group," as most anthropologists or sociologists of ethnicity would have it, but a "way of partitioning the social world and the discourse that gives meaning to it and guides the corresponding strategies of identification and differentiation." Ethnic identity is what results from "serial and routinized identifications according to the pattern or discourse of ethnicity" (2). In the Middle Ages, ethnicity-as-discourse was strongly influenced by the vocabulary of theology, while ethnic identities often employed religious metaphors as symbolic markers. Pohl cites Ludwig Wittgenstein to claim that, if taken literally, "the term 'identity' does not make sense at all" (4). He does not seem to know that the term entered the vocabulary of social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s from mathematics. As such, it referred to the quality of being identical (or similar) to members of a group or category, and, at the same time, different from members of another group or category. [1] A=B is an identity if A and B define the same functions. In other words, an identity is an equality between functions that are differently defined. [2] It is precisely with that notion in mind that Fredrik Barth emphasized the boundary-ma(r)king between groups (as opposed to the content of the group) as a salient feature of ethnic group membership. According to Pohl, when guessing at a stranger's origin, early medieval people scanned physiognomy, language, dress, and behavior, and were inclined to believe what the stranger told them. "Such pragmatic strategies of identification often are not too far off the mark, although they may fail in many cases. But they hardly offer a sound basis to define ethnicity." The reason is that "only some criteria apply to most given ethnic groups, and they rarely apply to all of them" (7). Ethnic groups are therefore not "reality itself," but tools for understanding reality (12). Germani "never acted in unison (at least notionally), followed common interests," or identified themselves as Germani in any consistent manner (41). This may well be true, but it is no novel idea. More than twenty years ago, scholars have suggested that people identifying themselves or others as an ethnic group do so in a primarily prototypic manner. Recognizable members may share some but not all traits, and those traits may not be equally weighted in people's minds. [3]

One is left with a vague impression that agency is not high up on the agenda of Pohl's "methodological profile." Indeed, to make ethnicity work the way Pohl proposes, one would need to accept that ethnicity "has to attach itself to other, more tangible forms of community--a common homeland, state, or religion" (25, my emphasis). The lack of clarity on this matter results, in my opinion, from the absence of any systematic treatment of the relation between power and ethnicity. To be sure, Pohl notes that "the powerful always exert some control over what can, and what may, be said" (29). He is even "tempted to assume that military leaders manipulated ethnicity in order to create loyalty among their followers" (44). But the word "power" is nowhere to be found among his four conclusions. Moreover, for all his subtle differentiation between ethnicity-as-discourse and ethnic group, Pohl fails to note that Totila's speech before the battle at Tadinae (which he cites as illustration of ethnicity reinforcing coherence and loyalty of war-bands) cannot be taken at face value. The speech is a critique of Justinian's policies of recruiting barbarians to fight for the Romans (and therefore an illustration of Procopius' views), not a reflection of Totila's actual thoughts. Here, as well as in the section on "Romanness" (23-24), Pohl could have make good use of the work of Anthony Kaldellis. [4]

In a very long paper (65-142) Richard Corradini examines the work of St. Augustine in reference to his use of the Tower of Babel, Jerusalem, and Rome, as conceptual models for group identification and differentiation. Corradini's sophisticated analysis points to the way in which peregrinatio became a key metaphor for Augustine's imagining of the new Chosen People in contraposition to Rome. One is led to the conclusion that Augustine's "utopian project" could have served as a template for the understanding of the world, at least in ethnic terms, along the lines of Pohl's suggestions in the Introduction. But was that project really ethnicity-as-discourse? Corradini does not engage with the aftermath of his story: how did Augustine's "ethnic" interpretation of history influence the discourse about ethnic groups in the Middle Ages? Who (re)used the "utopian project" and for what purpose?

Gerda Heydemann's paper (by far the best paper in the entire collection) deals with "Biblical Israel and the Christian gentes" in Cassiodorus' Expositio Psalmorum (143-208). The Christian gentes are still bound up with notions of common descent, and Cassiodorus activates these notions "in order to characterize them as empirical and historical entities" (194). But at the same time, when commenting upon Psalm 44, Cassiodorus brings up patria and lingua, and not common descent as distinctive criteria for a gens. Moreover, the gens can include foreigners (as opposed to the more narrowly defined nation), and in numerous cases moral and religious affiliation outweigh descent as criterion for identity. According to Heydemann, Cassiodorus "engages with the traditional repertory for 'othering' barbarian gentes, in order to draw different boundaries--frequently, religious ones" (196). While Cassiodorus never identified Israel with any contemporary polity, he did in fact underline the Roman quality of the Gothic rule in order to establish the Gothic gens as a legitimate political player (197). Heydemann suggests that the Christian perspective Cassiodorus adopted in Expositio psalmorum, which allows for the formulation and legitimization of a social and political order characterized by a plurality of gentes, is a response to the political discussions during the reign of Justinian about the relation between the Empire and the gentes, as well as between Roman and Christian identities.

Similarly anchored in contextual analysis is Maximilian Diesenberger's examination of Arbeo of Freising's vitae of Emmeram and Corbinian. The former is a hardly veiled attempt to "use different repertoires to smear Boniface's accomplishments" (222). Arbeo's gentes are not the "correct image of the past, but...constituent parts of a strategy for defining the present" (223). Against Walter Pohl (42), Diesenberger shows that the Anglo-Saxon mission revived the late antique category Germani, which was employed in Boniface's communication with the papal chancery. Its imprecise use offered Arbeo the opportunity to caricature the strategies of Boniface and the pope, when attempting to re-write the history of the church in Bavaria in order to render Boniface's efforts redundant (223). Diesenberger explores the aftermath of this "ethnicity-as-discourse" through the examination of the liturgical reworking, sometime in the early ninth century, of Arbeo's vita of Emmeram. The division of the text into antiphons and responses did not change its primary focus on the gentes. According to Diesenberger, the ninth-century reworking of Arbeo's text shows a greater familiarity with the new political configuration in the east, following the collapse of the Avar qaganate in the aftermath of Charlemagne's campaigns. If so, one wonders why are the Slavs mentioned as Wandali, while Arbeo's Huns are replaced by Avars. In c. 770, when Arbeo wrote the vita of Emmeram, to inhabitants of Bavaria the Avars were next door, and not (any more) the "steppe riders of the east" (216). One would have expected a greater knowledge of the neighbor than that resulting from hagiographic texts. A charter of 808 recording a land donation to the monastery of St. Emmeram mentions loca Avarorum. This suggests that people "on the ground" were familiar with the situation and therefore employed the "right" ethnic names. By contrast, the ninth-century antiphons and responses seem to look at the east from a much greater distance. The regnum Wandalorum into which Duke Theodo asked Emmeram to enter may therefore be the result of something else, perhaps the need to have a (name for the) polity for a bishopric. Indeed, as Diesenberger notes, the next antiphon states that Emmeram, upon arriving among the Avars, "declared to them that he was their bishop" (225).

Marianne Pollheimer's essay on "Preaching and Biblical Models of Community in the Ninth Century" (233-256) stands in contrast to the other papers in this volume. It examines the Biblical concepts of shepherd and sheep as perceived and developed in the Carolingian period, primarily by Hrabanus and Hincmar of Rheims. Pollheimer argues that in both cases those images were crucial to the formation of Christian communities. It remains unclear, though, how is that connected to the theme of the volume, "ethnicity and religion in early medieval Europe" (my emphasis). There is no trace of Pohl's notion of ethnicity-as-discourse in Pollheimer's essay, while the only reference to gentes is in relation to the letter of Gregory the Great for Reccared, the king of the Visigoths, a letter cited in Hincmar's De cavendis vitiis et virtutibus exercendis. Apparently, Gregory used the metaphor of the shepherd (in this case, Reccared) and his flock (the Visigoths) for an entire gens. But what, in the eyes of Hincmar, was the gens of which the king (in his case, Charles the Bald, not Reccared) was supposed to take care as a shepherd? Pollheimer does not develop the analysis any farther, and the conclusion to her paper is frustratingly missing the most important element of her discussion, which could have linked it to the general theme of this book. By contrast, Helmut Reimitz's essay on "History, Identity, and Ethnicity in Merovingian Historiography" (257-301) matches both the general theme of the book, and Pohl's agenda laid out in the introduction. Reimitz even cites Rogers Brubaker's Ethnicity Without Groups in support of Pohl's key distinction between ethnicity and ethnic groups (262). Reimitz sees Gregory of Tours and the authors of the Chronicle of Fredegar as "cultural brokers" who employed ethnicity-as-discourse in order to make sense of a rapidly changing world (292). While Gregory was reluctant to use ethnic names in the absence of the conceptual framework of the Roman ideological and political structures, the compilers of the Chronicle of Fredegar worked against Gregory's historiographic authority to establish the social function of an ethnic denominator for the integration of a society. In a similar manner, in his paper on the term Greci as used in the papal correspondence of the eighth century (303-349), Clemens Gantner convincingly argues that the pejorative meaning attached to that term, first emphasized under Stephen II, was not in contradiction to the fact that at the time Rome was essentially a Greek city, in which Greek culture was prominently present. The papacy chose to vilify its Byzantine enemies as Greci, in order to gain distance--politically, but also culturally--from the Empire. In fact, only popes who appear as "Roman" in the Liber pontificalis are known to have used the term in that sense in their correspondence.

The editors are to be commended for putting together a readable and physically attractive volume. There are very few errors (missing 's' for the plural of 'passage' on page 276; "happing" instead of "happening" in note 41 on page 311; unnecessary "the" before "anything" on page 329) and the reader should be thankful to the many people acknowledged in the Preface for their contributions to the copy-editing process and for their "help with the English." Although the volume centers upon religion, and one of the editors stresses the value of a different understanding of ethnicity, there is, throughout the volume, the subtle reminder expressed in Cassiodorus' interpretation of Psalm 82: "His [the Psalmist's] mention of a gens in the singular indicates the Christian people (populus); for though we are instructed that it is gathered from many gentes, they are rightly called a single gens, for they are known to be sprung from the one origin of baptism" (180).



1. S. Malešević, "Identity: Conceptual, Operational, and Historical Critique," in Making Sense of Collectivity. Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Globalization, ed. S. Malešević and M. Haugaard (London⁄Sterling: Pluto Press, 2002), 196-198.

2. An identity element is the element of a set that in combination with any other element by a specified binary operation leaves that element unchanged. Identity equations are equations that are true regardless of what values are plugged in for the variables. In linear algebra, an identity matrix is a square matrix with 1 for each element on the main diagonal and 0 for all other elements.

3. C. K. Mahmood and S. L. Armstrong, "Do Ethnic Groups Exist? A Cognitive Perspective on the Concept of Cultures," Ethnology 31 (1992): 1-14.

4. A. Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea. Tyranny, History, and Philosophy at the End of Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); and Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). The absence of any reference to Kaldellis' work on Hellenism in Byzantium is even more egregious in the case of Clemens Gantner's paper, which deals with Greci in

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Florin Curta

University of Florida