Friday, October 25, 2019

Guy Halsall on "Non-Migrating Barbarians: Late Antiquity in Northern Barbaricum"

Guy Halsall is one of the most interesting historians of Late Antiquity/the Early Middle Ages.  His main interests are "the Fall of the Roman Empire," Barbarian Migrations, and military history.  This year he's in Tubingen in Germany, where he will be able to refine his unorthodox ideas.  This week he delivered a provocative paper, of which this is an excerpt.

The first thing I want to say – I seem to have to keep saying this – is that the first part of my title should not be read as a statement or claim that there were no Barbarian Migrations: no migrating barbarians.  It is a simple statement of what the paper is about, which is to say, those barbarians who didn’t migrate or at least about those who, if they did migrate, came home again: surely – in anyone’s estimation – the overwhelming majority of ‘Barbarians’.  It is concerned with the territories north and west of the western Roman Empire between the later third and the earlier seventh century, which you might see as the heart of late antiquity, a ‘core late antiquity’, or even a short late antiquity. 

The question before us – and has been posed by me and others before – is whether there is a northern or north-western European late antiquity.  Does the ‘late antique paradigm’ apply to the regions beyond the Rhine-Danube limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Irish Sea?  If it seems uncontroversial to speak of late antique Persia or late antique Arabia – areas beyond the Roman frontiers of course – why does it sound strange to speak of late antique Denmark or late antique Pictland – especially in an intellectual climate where we are encouraged to think of a ‘global late antiquity?  I don’t think that ‘global late antiquity’ (or for that matter the global middle ages) is an especially helpful term, but that is a separate issue from realising that the Mediterranean was not the centre of the world, that it was connected directly or indirectly to most other regions of the globe and their own centres, or that in some ways the various Eurasian imperial ‘centres’ – the Mediterranean, China and India – were all peripheral to each other and especially to the Eurasian steppe.

Of course, what makes late antiquity tricky as a descriptor in all these cases is that it is not merely a chronological term, but a paradigm or problematic.  To speak of the chronological period of the third-to-seventh centuries of the Christian Era across, say, the north-west of Europe – the far western Eurasian capes and islands as I sometimes like to call them, to try to decentre Europe – is possibly fine (I hope so as I want to write a book on that topic).  But that is subtly different from talking about ‘late antiquity’ in those regions. No one needs reminding of the origins of the concept of late antiquity, as a means of side-stepping the old idea that in the fifth century, with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient world ended and the medieval world began (whatever that may have meant): a caesura in the whole of European and Mediterranean history.  Naturally, very famous scholars had been questioning the nature and reality of that caesura since the late nineteenth century, but the idea of a new periodisation stressing continuity seems to have been new, from the 1950s onwards, until – famously, classically – popularised in the general consciousness by Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Equally, however, the notion has not gone uncritiqued.  The paradigm works best in geographical regions closest to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and thematically in areas like those in which Brown was most interested: religion and society; thought.  There might be something to the unity of the ‘short’ late antiquity I am discussing in the economic sphere as well, even if not in the way that Pirenne imagined – albeit before the notion of Late Antiquity had emerged.  However, the concentration of Late Antique scholarship on the East, and on themes like Christianity, the church, ideas, society and the holy, meant that the problem it had initially seemed to confront, that is to say the supposed ruptures of the fifth century, were in practice rather sidestepped.  To what extent had people ever generally supposed a huge rift in eastern Mediterranean society, religion, art and thought as a result of the fifth-century Barbarian Invasions or Migrations and the collapse of the Western Empire? (That’s not a merely rhetorical genuine question, by the way.) 

As I see it, the politics of the fifth-century west have remained something of a blind spot for the Late Antique paradigm.  How to explain the fact that the western Roman Empire existed in 400 but had at least ceased to be effective by 500 and was generally recognised by contemporaries to have disappeared by the middle quarters of the sixth century?  The solution appears to have accepted the paradigm of ‘barbarian invasion’ but to deny that this made much difference – in a way similar to Pirenne’s or Fustel’s interpretation (you might call this the ‘Weak Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations).  Or generally just to gloss over the problem.  That solution does not appear to be effective.

No comments:

Post a comment