15.05.13, Pohl and Heydemann, eds., Post-Roman Transitions

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Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling

The Medieval Review 15.05.13

Pohl, Walter, and Gerda Heydemann, eds. Post-Roman Transitions: Christian and Barbarian Identities in the Early Medieval West. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 14. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. pp. x, 580. ISBN: 9782503543277 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Veronica Ortenberg West-Harling
All Souls College, Oxford

This volume is the companion to volume 13 in the Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (CELAMA) Series, Strategies of Identification. Its core problem, as defined by Walter Pohl in his introduction, is to study the change taking place after the end of Roman rule in the West not as the emergence of single peoples with specific ethnic names and identities, but rather as the gradual change in the discourse of identity through which ethnicity gains growing legitimacy as the basis for political rule. While previously in the Roman world such a model was known but seen as specific to Barbarian societies, increasingly it ceases to be regarded as a Barbarian form of organisation and starts to apply to parts of old Roman territory. On account of this, a new identity is being created through the mix of ethnic traditions with Christianity, helped in large part by the bishops. Pohl makes several other key points. One concerns the fact that ethnic bonds do not have equal importance at all times, being particularly underlined during periods of conflict and crisis. Another is the issue of Christian and ethnic identity based on both the Old and New Testaments--through which the biblical world view of the existence of multiple peoples, with some replacing others as "elected" by God--becomes essential, and through this prism, can give legitimacy to a form of political rule offering salvation to all gentes.

The two fundamental issues discussed throughout the book, and forming its two parts, are defined as those of "scripts for identity" and the evolving meaning of "Romanness," which are especially well discussed in the opening papers of each section and are two among the best in the book. In the first, A. Diem allows us to see, through the study of the "royal" monastery of Agaune, how this very notion was invented by Burgundian and Frankish rulers in order to "place monastic communities and their collectively achieved sanctity in their service...to turn monasteries into...supporting pillars of their rule...and political identity" (52). While examining how the king turned an "open monastery" of the kind still common to the Jura monasteries--that is to say one associating a multiplicity of people such as guests, the sick, women, pilgrims, anyone who wanted to lead a monastic life--into a "closed monastery" whose main, if not only purpose, was to pray for the king, Diem highlights the need to get rid of the assorted hangers-on of a pilgrimage place to favour the clericalisation of the monks, who can thus ensure the laus perennis, and further to endow the monastery with great wealth so that the monks should not need to work, allowing the transformation of one aspect of monastic life (liturgical prayer) to take over and become the main aspect of it. This exclusion of laymen, considered not good enough to pray for the king, would later also become an exclusion on ethnic grounds when Agaune came into Frankish royal hands, and was to be particularly clear in the other "royal" monastery set up by the Franks at Luxeuil. There, when Columbanus fell out with Theuderic II and Brunhild and was sent by them back to Ireland, the original group of Irish monks was allowed to follow him, but not the Franks: the Irish ones were no longer suitable to pray for the king. In the second, opening Part II, M. Maskarinec studies the modifications brought by Paul the Deacon in the eighth century to his fourth-century source, Eutropius, for the Historia Romana, at a time when notions of Romanness understood in the fourth century on the basis of citizenship of Rome--or in general of citizenship united by a common culture--were no longer suitable. Paul's history fundamentally changes the original history of the ascent of Roman power to make it more like the model of an ethnic history like that of the Lombards. His point is that, while the original Roman populus had prospered through the amalgamation of many peoples and migrants who had learnt to live together, providing the recipe for success that had been the Roman Empire, such unity had failed to be achieved by the Lombards in his time, which is why their kingdom had ended. The Roman Empire according to Paul had dissolved and failed in Italy on account of heresy; Maskarinec then analyses the way in which the continuator of Paul in Book 17 changes the emphasis even further. He accepts that the Roman Empire continued in Italy until the 730s, while at the same time seeing it no longer as "Roman" but rather peopled by Itali, non-heretics led by the pope against heretical Byzantine emperors. This is a very important paper in its subtle perception of shifts of Romanness in the West, and also dovetails with that by F. Borri towards the end of the previous section. Borri's contention is that the migration myths of Venice, Dalmatia and the cities of the Adriatic arc (like Salona) share a characteristic, in that their foundation myths are based not on Roman historical traditions but on the model in the "negative" of those of the Barbarian peoples, the ethnic model of the kind proposed by Paul the Deacon. This also partly explains the uncertainty concerning the extent to which Barbarians (Lombards or Huns) were the oppressors, and even more specifically the confusion and doubling of Attila and Totila, which became part of the myths set in stone later in the Middle Ages by Thomas the Archdeacon for Salona and Andrea Dandolo for Venice.

Other papers in the first section approach the scripts for identity through more national perceptions. O'Hara compares three figures of peregrine: Columbanus, who while a peregrinus, nevertheless was always aware of his Irish identity in parallel; Jonas, acutely conscious of the multi-ethnic society in which he lived to the extent of not even identifying himself with any group in it; and Valerius of Bierzo, a Visigothic hermit whose identity was first and foremost as an ascetic, a throwback to the age of the Desert Fathers. Wood looks at Isidore's two versions of his Chronica Maiora and, through analysing the revisions, can see the work pursued in order to make the Visigoths the new chosen people, since both the Jews have refused conversion and the Roman empire has become heretic, even as it was necessary to photoshop the Visigothic Arian past away. Clay analyses the rewriting of the adventus of the West Saxons to fit the needs of the ninth century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while Stoffella looks at the "Frankish Table of Nations," which through the change of "Tuscans" for "Thuringians" in the milieu of Montecasssino, nevertheless shows how country and city identity are stronger than regional ones.

The section on Romanness comprises another five papers, with von Rummel's and Barbiera's representing the archaeological component. Both examine the image of the Barbarian and its evolution, the first looking at the shift from the pole Roman/Barbarian to that of civilian/barbarian = military, explaining why we should look at grave goods as indicators not of ethnic identity but of social competition. Having studied cemeteries both with and without grave goods, Barbiera asserts that the introduction of the latter was not contemporary with the settlements period, but began around the first century BC and lasted into the seventh century AD, with ups and downs in the presence of grave goods being dependent on whether other markers could be used for commemoration, such as stone monuments, inscriptions or portraits; only when the latter were no longer available, for example through the disappearance of skilled stone cutters or of marble, did grave goods reappear as a social marker. De Rubeis gives a very good summary of the epigraphic production, its variations and decline in the West, and she concentrates particularly on the transition from the use of inscriptions in an "open space," i.e. public and civic, to a "closed space," especially that of churches. She further traces the increasing specialisation and hierarchy of space there, with that closest to the altar or the relics reserved to the sacred and the clergy, while that controlled by the laity needs to move up and facing the audience if it is to be seen at all. Two articles by Steinacher on Vandal titulature, and by Krutzler on the awareness of ethnic identities in Fredegar and Gregory of Tours complete this part.

Like all volumes which came out of the ERC project on the "Transformation of the Roman World" and the Wittgenstein project in Vienna, this is an important volume that both mixes the work of young scholars with that of already established ones, as well as crossing a variety of disciplines, textual and material. The two parallel notions of ethnic identity and Romanness are explored in a way which allows an awareness of their constant interchange, evolution and flexibility to be made quite clear again and again. Particularly effective in this volume are the studies showing how aware contemporary authors like Isidore or Seville or Paul the Deacon and his continuator were of the need and the justification for adapting through cutting and pasting from a variety of sources in order selectively to enhance the prestige of an ethnic group through the Christian possibility of "election by God." Equally important is the contribution from archaeology which insists on doing away with the traditional views of ethnic markers, to replace them with social ones, reinforcing the overall argument of the constant interplay and long-term exchanges between a diversity of peoples in the West.

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