The Medieval Review 17.12.16

Buchberger, Erica. Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700: From Romans to Goths and Franks. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. pp. 218.

Reviewed by:

Allen Jones
Troy University

Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700 by Erica Buchberger is a very short book and a very good one. While the final page of the conclusion reads 186, a count of pages of text from introduction to conclusion actually numbers a mere 168 pages. Contained within this thin tome, however, is a novel methodology for considering how people renegotiated ethnic identities that will resonate in early medieval studies and potentially beyond.

The better part of the introduction consists of a quick overview of the scholarly tradition on early medieval ethnic identities. Buchberger traces the 'essentialist' model, which argues for ethnicity as inherited and permanent, from ancient Greece through to the nationalist views of the World War II era, after which scholars rejected such ideas for theories espousing the created nature of ethnicity. Chief among post war models that Buchberger touches on are ethnogenesis theories of the Vienna School and social constructionist concepts. Buchberger identifies her position as building on the "new Vienna methodology," whose proponents have advanced beyond older efforts such as the Traditionskern model, scholars such as Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz (22). What I find striking about Buchberger's method is how it appears at one and the same time both simple and quite profound. Specifically, Buchberger analyzes how authors and people living in Spain and Gaul after the western empire's demise used ethnic identities such as 'Roman', 'Frank' and 'Goth' according to multiple aspects--particularly politically, religiously and by descent--and thereby promoted identity change or actually transitioned identities from Roman to either Goth or Frank. An example of meaningfully using multiple aspects of ethnic identity might operate as follows: "Gregory of Tours, writing in sixth-century Gaul, could have claimed to be a Roman by descent and Catholic by faith, a Frank politically as a loyal subject of Merovingian kings, and also a variety of other identities not associated with these ethnonyms... Gregory did not claim all of these explicitly... Gregory chose to emphasize those layers of his identity that mattered most to him and served his particular strategies when writing his Histories and accounts of saints' lives" (23).

Buchberger sticks strictly to the dates noted in the book's subtitle, 500 to 700. As a result, she eschews consideration of the origins of Frankish and Gothic ethnicities during the third through fifth centuries. She rightly treats the word 'Roman' as every bit an applicable ethnic term as 'Frank' and 'Goth.' Buchberger divides the book into two parts; the first (chapters 1 through 3) addresses 'Roman' to 'Visigothic' Spain, while the second (chapters 4 through 7) considers 'Roman' to 'Frankish' Gaul. The author's analysis of usages of the pertinent ethnonyms indicates that both regions similarly experienced a shift in claims of political identity, from Roman to that of the dominant 'barbarian' kingdom. The study also reveals a crucial difference in that by the end of the seventh-century inhabitants of Spain identified more completely with being Gothic, while residents in Gaul, although they embraced a Frankish political identity, continued to claim a variety of ethnic identities by descent. The book's conclusion considers reasons for the different results in the two regions.

One principal factor in the different outcomes for Spain and Gaul was that the rulers of the former made a protracted effort to unify their kingdom. Authors relating details of events for the late sixth century including John of Biclar and Isidore of Seville indicate that up to 589 it was common practice to assume that Goths were Arian Christians and descendants of Romans were Catholics. Among multiple efforts to bring unity to a heretofore much divided Spain, King Leuvigild attempted, and failed, to cause his Catholic subjects to become Arian, whereas Reccared succeeded in causing those who identified as Goths by descent to convert to Catholicism. [1] John and Isidore among other sources used 'essentialist' ethnic language to give the impression that all Goths converted to Catholicism in 589 to stress the importance of the occasion, even though conversion of an entire people patently did not match the reality. (The Goth John of Biclar himself was a Catholic before 589.) From that year, many people in Spain who might identify as being of Roman descent could also claim to be politically Gothic by virtue of being a subject of the kingdom and religiously Gothic by practicing the variety of Christianity now actively supported by the ruler. Sources composed in the first half of the seventh century included language that further asserted a shared Gothic identity: "In Isidore's History and conciliar records, the gens Gothorum appears as a unified group on both religious and political levels and linked closely to their country and king" (78). King Recceswinth's issuance of the Lex Visigothorum in 654 marked a point from whence sources of the latter seventh century abandoned the earlier language of unity, thereby indicating a virtual completion to the process of renegotiation of identities: "Gothic identity had been so thoroughly adopted that neither it nor it's metaphorical Roman opposite needed to be mentioned" (100). About the final phase of this renegotiation process, Buchberger rightly remarks that substitution of identifying terms such as Hispaniae for 'Gothic' simply indicated the "assimilation of Hispano-Romans and other into 'Gothic' identity"; it did not herald the birth of a Spanish identity or the "awakening of 'the Hispanic nationality'" (98).

Buchberger's consideration of Gallic sources reveals how this region experienced an increased acceptance of Frankish political identity; however, unlike in Spain, the many people of Gaul retained a diversity of ethnic identifiers according to perceived descent. Buchberger begins analysis of sixth-century Gaul with Gregory of Tours, who scholars long have realized did not refer to contemporaries as 'Romans.' She explains that it was logical for Gregory to regularly attach to his characters identifiers such as city of origin, notable relations, and indicators of high social rank, because such qualifiers were meaningful to his audience, particularly residents of southern Gaul who continued to imagine themselves participating in a localized, still culturally Roman world. About sixth-century Gaul, Buchberger makes an excellent point about the need to look beyond Gregory to get a fuller picture for assessing social realities. She shows how Gregory's contemporary, the poet Venantius Fortunatus, chose the option of employing ethnic identifiers like 'Roman' and 'Frank' more often than did his friend from Tours. Writing some seventy years later, the chronicler whom scholars call Fredegar participated in a different world than did the bishop of Tours. Fredegar's work contains far more ethnonyms than sixth-century sources. Fredegar frequently opted to identify individuals ethnically--a 'Frank by birth,' a 'Roman by birth,' 'a Saxon by birth'--but he strove to encourage a unity amongst the people of Gaul by emphasizing their shared 'Frankish' political ethnicity. "Like the Visigoths' conversion opening up Catholicism as an avenue for people of any ancestry to identify as Gothic, Fredegar's construction of a Frankish political identity that was available to subjects of any ancestry made it easier for those subjects to consider themselves 'Franks', first by political loyalty, then possibly in other ways as well" (162).

Among numerous valuable insights one may come away with from this book, I appreciate Buchberger's willingness to assert that finding similar tendencies for usage of ethnonyms in multiple sources enables one to interpret the evidence as revealing societal changes. In this vein, she shows how evidence from the multiple-authored Life of Caesarius of Arles complements that from Gregory of Tours to reveal how it apparently was common among inhabitants of sixth-century southern Gaul to think it meaningful to identify people by city, social rank, and prominent relatives. Identifying peoples in this way was not merely a peculiarity of Gregory of Tours. Likewise, similar uses of ethnonyms in Audoin's Life of Eligius of Noyon and in Fredegar's Chronicle confirms that an increased use of ethnic identifiers by descent was a common practice during the latter seventh century.

Something of a trifle with the book lies with the fact that the sources Buchberger considers tend to reflect a partiality for the royal regimes of the areas under consideration. This is especially so for the sources about Spain (John of Biclar, Isidore of Seville, Lex Visigothorum, church councils of Toledo), which also exhibit a strong Toledo bias. (I acknowledge that the author is aware of the situation [51], and the saints' lives under analysis do constitute a notable exception.) I do not think this negates the effectiveness of Buchberger's methodology; however, I could not help but wonder as I read the chapters about both Spain and (the Frankish dominated parts of) Gaul, might people living some distance from the Frankish Teilreichen and Toledo have experienced results different from the trends observed in the sources under review? Particularly, how did the people of Gothic-held Septimania/Gallia Narbonensis negotiate identities in the sixth and seventh centuries? Buchberger's remark that following the Visigothic loss at Vouillé (507) and subsequent abandonment of the capital at Toulouse the Goths' "home would be Spain" is too tidy, even for a line from the introductory section on Spain (33). Many people identifying as both Romans and Goths assuredly resided in Narbonensis at the end of the sixth century and very likely still did so at the end of the seventh. Furthermore, the people of Gallia Narbonensis along with those dwelling along a significant portion of the coastal parts of Tarraconensis appear to have formed a lasting coherent unit that not only doggedly maintained their independence from the Franks, but also frequently contested Toledo's centralizing aspirations; this situation persisted throughout the sixth and seventh centuries. [2] For example, the independent minded power brokers of Narbonensis elevated the Visigothic King Liuva I in 568 after a nearly half-year interregnum following Athanagild's death. [3] And following revolts versus the Spanish monarchy in 631 and 653, a royal claimant named Paulus in 673 declared himself ruler of a Regnum Orientalis consisting of Gallia Narbonensis and lands in Tarraconensis and challenged Wamba. [4] Frank Riess identifies Wamba's opponents as "a province of Goths, Gallo-Romans and Jews." [5] Perhaps application of Buchberger's method to texts such as certain of the Epistolae Wisigothicae or the Historia Wambae regis may offer further insights into the process of identity negotiation among the people dwelling in this liminal area.

This book has plenty to merit it deserving the consideration of professors and graduate students in the field of late ancient/early medieval studies. Buchberger's method is outstanding and I anticipate years to come of scholars incorporating it into analyses of other sources to develop an even more accurate understanding of the processes of changing identities. A final added reason to hail the book is that, unlike so many collected editions pertaining to the subjects of ethnogenesis and ethnic identity published in the past two decades or so, this monograph is immanently accessible, so much so that it should provide an excellent means of introducing undergraduate students to the topic of early medieval shifting ethnicities.

-------- Notes:

1. On Spain's political disunity prior to Leuvigild's campaigns, see Michael Kulikowski, Late Roman Spain and Its Cities (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 256-286.

2. See Frank Riess, Narbonne and Its Territory in Late Antiquity: From the Visigoths to the Arabs (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), particularly chapters 4 through 6 (pp. 131-219) for the sixth through seventh centuries.

3. Ibid., 142.

4. 631 and 653: Ibid., 176-180; 673: Ibid., 203-205.

5. Ibid., 216.

Copyright (c) 2018 Allen Jones

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login