Saturday, 3 November 2018

Dissertation Journal #2: Completing the Network and Resolving Problems

Over the summer and since my previous post, I have completed entering the data necessary to create a social network based on Cassiodorus' Variae. In this entry, I not only hope to show the process by which this was carried out, but also show the problems that can arise in a research project of this size and nature and how they can be resolved or at least circumvented. I will do this by firstly examining the process for collecting the data for the nodes or individuals within the network and then move on to look at the wedges or connections.

The data for this project was collected through a reading of the first five books of Cassiodorus' Variae and then was entered into Microsoft Excel. The first Excel sheet for my database was for the 'nodes'. This mainly consisted of the characteristics of the individuals in the network which were collected under a series of labels; their name, the origin of their name or ethnicity, gender, occupation and finally their location. An additional column was reserved for a range of additional notes relevant to creating the network, such as my reasoning for making certain decisions. It is clear that the labels I used for collecting the data were based on structures (such as class and ethnicity) that have had prominence in recent debates on Ostrogothic Italy. While this may indeed have neglected other aspects of the text, I believe my choices are justified as one of the aims of my project was to ask whether recent historiography stands up to scrutiny when the Variae are analysed quantitatively instead of qualitatively. Likewise, I believe a technique like Social Network Analysis, as it examines connections between people, can be used to examine the usefulness of these categories.

Part of the nodes table for the data collected from the Variae.

However, a specific problem did arise when trying to enter the geographic location of individuals within the network. When I initially started my project I expected I would able to pinpoint the 'home' location of an individual, in essence where they spend most of their time. However, this rarely came up while reading the Variae and therefore left a column of almost entirely 'unknowns'. For example, I was able to work out that a certain Florianus and Annas were both involved in a dispute over a farm at Mazennes, but the text provided no clue to whether they were actually from this area. A second and more serious problem was that by focusing on the 'home' location of an individual, I was in danger of ignoring what the source was telling me with regards to the geographic mobility of certain people within the Ostrogothic Kingdom, as individuals in the Variae were appearing in multiple places. My dissertation supervisor suggested that a solution to these problems could be to change my initial label of 'location' for the column to a more general one of 'zones of activity'. I believe this solution, of entering multiple locations, helped to avoid losing some of the nuance of the Variae. In one of the most extreme instances, the Praetorian Prefect Faustus, could be found in 14 different locations, ranging from the Cottian Alps to Campania, and instances such as these could not be simply ignored.

Entering the data for the other labels in the nodes table was generally easier, however a number of issues did arise when deciding the ethnicity of a particular person, especially whether they should be termed Roman or Gothic. My main sources for the decision part of this category were two reference works, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. and the prosopography found within Amory's People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554.  As early medieval scholarship has moved to a more fluid definition of ethnicity, these works had a number of criteria for determining whether a person was Roman or Gothic, aside from the linguistic origin of their name. This, of course, meant there were certain scenarios where the ethnicity of a person was not clear. For example, neither Amory or Martindale could decide the best term to describe an individual called Starcedus. Furthermore, an individual named Colossaeus may have initially appeared to have a Roman name, but the Variae themselves state that he is Gothic (Var. III 23). In some instances there were people who were neither Gothic or Roman, therefore I often used the particular context of an individual to make a decision. For example, Clovis, as King of the Franks, was termed 'Frankish'.

Further complications were the result of my translation of the Variae, the nineteenth-century edition by Thomas Hodgkin. As the best version of the Variae available in English, it is a pivotal work for my dissertation, especially for the purposes of collecting data. This is due to the fact that it contains all the letters from Latin edition, even if in an abridged format. However, it is not perfect, Hodgkin has a tendency to be inconsistent in his use of names and titles. The Assuin mentioned in Book 1, is the same as the Ossuin in Books 3 and 4, however Hodgkin uses both versions of the name without stating it is the same person. In such confusing instances, my reference works were valuable in establishing such connections.

Part of the incidence matrix compiled for the dissertation.

Concurrently to entering the data for the nodes table, I had to compile an incidence matrix to create the wedges or connections within the social network. As shown above, this involved entering a '1' in a column when an individual was a participant in a letter or a '0' if they were not. The letters of the Variae were represented in the top row by the alphabet. A matrix such as this was the easiest way to collect the data, as it accommodated my approach of reading through the Variae one by one. However, it was difficult to transfer this part of the database over to Gephi, the software I am using for the metrics and visualisation of the network. I was therefore required to create a source-target table (as shown below) to do this. This simply involved typing the two IDs (their numerical reference) of the participants within the connection and attributing to them a 'weight'. A higher 'weight' between two people indicates that they are more closely connected, for my purposes this was how often they were mentioned together within Cassiodorus' letters, which was often only once.

Source-Target Table for connections in the network.

                                                Visualisation of my network in Gephi.

The creating of the source-target table formed the final part of my data collection process. After this I transferred it all over to Gephi and ran an algorithm, which helped to create the visualisation of the network also shown above. I immediately detected, unsurprisingly, that Theodoric the Great was at the centre of the network due to his participation in all the letters of the first five books of the Variae. However, I also noticed a number of cliques or groups within the network, particularly around those individuals who were based around Rome or were members of the senate. Argolicus, the Urban Prefect of the city is the most connected individual in the network aside from Theodoric. As my dissertation work continues, I will continue to analyse these different intricacies of the network, most notably by using the metric tools available within Gephi.

Primary Sources:

  Cassiodorus, Variae translated in The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being A Condensed Translation Of The Variae Epistolae Of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator translated by Thomas Hodgkin. London: Henry Frowde, 1886.

     Secondary Sources:

  Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997

  The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Vol 3 edited by Arnold Jones, John Martindale and John Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

  Scott, John. Social Network Analysis: A Handbook. 2017 ed. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 1991.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Constructing Outer Space?: The Politics of Astronomy in Carolingian Europe

Traditionally, early medieval and Carolingian astronomy has often been dismissed as a period of little or no progress in the history of science. However, over the last several decades a number of scholars have sought to engage with the astronomy of this era on its own terms; viewing it within its own cultural context and and seeking to prove that this still worthy studying. Paul E. Dutton has argued for an understanding of Carolingian astronomy based on the divinatory and historical meanings it sought to find in the stars. Meanwhile, Stephen C. McCluskey has emphasised the textual aspect of Carolingian astronomy and the way it was often based on the elaboration and interpretation of classical treatises, much more than natural observation. The cultural aspect of early medieval astronomy is therefore a theme prominent in the relevant historiography. This post aims to build on these studies by suggesting that the cultural influence on astronomy was not only present, but that it was often manipulated for political purposes. Astronomy in Carolingian Europe was therefore not a single discipline or methodology, but was something that always adapted, often consciously, for different purposes and circumstances. I will show this political use of astronomy by looking at three examples; the illuminated manuscript entitled the Leiden Aratea, the relationship between the Irish scholar Dungal and Charlemagne and finally the passing of Halley's Comet during the reign of Louis the Pious in 837.

However, first it is necessary to outline some of the traditions that influenced Carolingian astronomy, in order to understand the 'cultural repository' from which those gazing at the stars could take from. Mccluskey has done a large amount of work outlining the strands of thought concerning astronomy in early medieval Europe. He argues that traditions regarding astronomy can be put into a number of groups. Firstly, the Roman heritage of astronomy as one of the mathematical disciplines within the seven liberal arts. Next, the tradition of computus- used for determining the date of Easter. These traditions also went alongside the monastic practice of using the stars for timekeeping, in order to determine times for praying, and finally the various astrological techniques used to try and predict future events. This division, as Mccluskey admits, was not always clear cut and in some instances we find in the sources a blend of these different traditions  Alongside these instruments used to view the sky, we must also take Dutton's timely reminder that the medieval sky was not as empty as the modern one. In contrast, to the tendency of science today to see outer space as mostly a void between different celestial objects, the sky for medieval observers was full of movement and meaning. It was often also a way through one could try and determine the will of God through signs and omens. With these points in mind we are in a better position to understand the way in which astronomy could be manipulated and the power and influence it could hold.

The Leiden Aratea and the use of the Classical tradition.

                                                Orion the Hunter from the Leiden Aratea

The Leiden Aratea is a ninth century copy of an astronomical and meteorlogical treatise written by the Greek writer Aratus (315-240/39 BCE) and is our first example of the political use of astronomy in Carolingian Europe. However, the Carolingian version does not originate from the original text, a long tradition of copying the treatise existed before the ninth century. The Carolingian version of the Aratea mainly consists of Claudius Caesar Germanicus'  first century Latin translation and is supplemented by portions of a second Latin translation by Rufius Festus Avienus in the fourth century. The Leiden Aratea also contains 39 illustrated miniatures depicting the seasons, planets and constellations. These borrow from Classical symbolism with each miniature being a god, hero, object or animal. For example, the image above shows Orion the Hunter overlying the synonymous constellation. The Leiden Aratea was therefore closely not only connected to classical ideas regarding astronomy, but also the textual tradition of copying astronomical treatises.

While this may at first seem innocent enough at first, the Leiden Aratea must be put into the wider context of the Carolingian Renaissance. This term has been has been highly debated, but it can be broadly defined as a revival of intellectual learning during the reign of Charlemagne and the  Emperor Louis. Part of this renaissance involved correcting classical texts, such as the Leiden Aratea, that had been passed down. Katzenstein comments that this interest in classical texts was not simply a nostalgia for a past however, but that it was closely tied to an interest at the Carolingian Court to acquire worldly knowledge which would enable Christians to understand  theological truths better. This fact can also be seen in the predominant role clerics played during the Carolingian Renaissance. Understandably, all this means that there was also a political benefit to correcting classical texts, as it provided rulers such as Charlemagne with the prestige of supposedly holding greater knowledge of religious truths.

So how does the Leiden Aratea fit into into this wider context? The Leiden Aratea was not a practical text, it would have been hard for anyone to use it to accurately gaze at the stars. Instead, we must connect to the aforementioned tradition Roman astronomy as part of the seven liberal arts. In many of the extant libraries of Carolingian monasteries we find that texts associated with the liberal arts were kept separate to those that focused on other methods of astronomy, such as the much more practical methodology of computus. From this it is clear to see that classical texts such as the Leiden Aratea were not seen to have the same use as other astronomical texts. Instead, the Aratea can be said to have an ideological rather than practical purpose. Texts such as this were often more or less directly copied from their classical counterparts. Even the miniatures in the Leiden Aratea, while adapted to norms of Carolingian illumination, would have likely been derived from preexisting manuscripts. The Aratea was therefore meant to draw a direct connection to the liberal tradition of Roman astronomy. As mentioned above, an education in the classical tradition was one of the key components of the Carolingian Renaissance. The Aratea was therefore one of the individual texts used during the renaissance to try and boost the prestige of the Carolingian Court, showing us the political power that astronomical treatises could hold, especially when drawing from the classical tradition.

The Politics in Dungal's letter to Charlemagne in 811

If the Leiden Aratea shows us how classical astronomical texts could be used for political benefit, Dungal's letter to Charlemagne in 811 can also reveal to us how an individual could use his personal knowledge of the sky for personal gain at he Carolingian Court. However, to understand why may have used his knowledge for political purposes, it is first necessary to provide the relevant context. In 810/811, Charlemagne contacted the Irish scholar, one of many insular intellectuals within the Carolingian Empire, regarding two recent solar eclipses. However, only two extant letters survive from this exchange. While this would suggest that Charlemagne considered Dungal an authority on astronomy, we should not presume this means he was a prominent political figure at the Carolingian Court. The lack of evidence on Dungal in contrast to scholars such as Alcuin means it is difficult to ascertain his level of influence at court. This can be seen by the fact that Dungal was once thought to be four separate people before the unity of his surviving texts was established. In fact, Garrison has argued that Dungal may have been a peripheral figure in the intellectual hierarchy within the Carolingian Empire. A letter to Theodrada, the daughter of Charlemagne, suggests he is barely acquainted with her. Furthermore, a letter to an abbot suggests he was actively seeking patronage and that he did not have the direct support of the court. With this in mind, we can understand that when Charlemagne contacted Dungal regarding the solar eclipses, he was provided with an opportunity to display his astronomical knowledge and ultimately how he could contribute to the intellectual culture at court.

Dungal's letter to Charlemagne in 811 about the two recent solar eclipses shows this political motivation in action. While writing his reply, Dungal heavily quoted from Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, interspersing it with commentary from Pliny. Macrobius' text itself emerges from the fifth century.  While mentioning all of this regarding Macrobius and Pliny was necessary to set up his answer to Charlemagne's questions regarding the eclipses, it also provided an opportunity to display the extent of his astronomical and intellectual knowledge. Dungal also in the reply complained about his lack of access to Pliny, therefore highlighting the fact that while he remained on the periphery of Carolingian intellectual life his abilities were being underutilised.

However, this use of astronomical knowledge to gain political favour is best seen when Dungal mentions the most controversial part of Macrobius' Commentary, which tries to resolve a dispute between Plato and Cicero on the placement of the Sun. Plato suggested that the Sun was sixth in the placement of the planets inward from Saturn, whereas Cicero claimed it was fourth inward from Saturn. Dungal's political motivation is seen when he becomes deliberately selective in using Macrobius to present this dispute, for example he omits the latter's support of the Platonic school of thought on the placement of the Sun. This was because the Ciceronian view was more popular at the Carolingian Court. Dungal was therefore deliberately manipulating an astronomical text to further his chances of being accepted into the higher parts of the Carolingian intellectual hierarchy. This of course, on top of his other rhetorical strategies in the letter, shows a concerted effort by Dungal to use his astronomical knowledge for political advantage.

Louis the Pious and the 'Anxiety' of Astronomy

The Passing of Halley's Comet in 1986

The previous two examples, the Leiden Aratea and Dungal's letter to Charlemagne in 811, show the power astronomy could hold as a political or symbolic device. As these both relied on knowledge and texts within their control, they were effective devices to achieve their political aims. However, the passing of Halley's Comet in 837 shows us a different example where the political significance attached to astronomy could sometimes be more problematic than helpful. This of course being especially true in this instance as celestial objects such as comets are for the time being ultimately out of human control. Halley's Comet passed within 3 million miles of Earth in 837 in contrast to 1986 when it was 24 million years away, it would therefore have likely been a prominent object in the Carolingian sky at the time of its passing. As such, the comet is mentioned in numerous Carolingian sources, such as the Annals of Fulda and in the writings of Lupus of Ferrières. However, the most prominent account comes in a biography of the Emperor Louis written by a figure referred to as 'The Astronomer'. This biography, the Vita Hludovici, can reveal to us how astronomy could often become problematic for Carolingian rulers. 

This is best illustrated by the emotional response The Astronomer and the Emperor Louis have to the passing of the comet.The passage describing its appearance starts with 'In the middle of the Easter celebration, a dire and sad portent, a comet, appeared in the sign of Virgo'. Immediately, The Astronomer suggests that the sight of the comet may be a bad omen for things to come. However, the intensity of the passage picks up 'when he [Louis] saw that the comet had stopped, was anxious, before he went to bed, to interrogate a certain person who had been summoned, namely me [The Astronomer]'. Upon appearance of the comet, Louis knows the impact it could have on him and his kingdom, he immediately summons the Astronomer to try and find some reassurance. This suggests that celestial entities, such as Halley's Comet, could provoke a feeling of ensuing danger. The Astronomer later reminds Louis 'to not fear the sign from heaven which the nations fear', quoting Jeremiah 10:2. The original scriptural passage can be found in the context of God talking to the Israelites, therefore the Astronomer is reminding Louis, as ruler of the Carolingian Empire, to not fear celestial objects like other 'nations' do. This shows how fears of political change could often be linked to what appeared in the sky, as the Franks standing in for the Israelites, are not supposed to hold this fear, as a result of being God's chosen people. 

Louis immediately affirms this and suggests that he and The Astronomer should actually be grateful for God giving them a forewarning of trouble. Louis still however seems anxious as 'Having said this, he indulged in a little wine' and 'kept vigil all night', as the morning approached 'he ordered alms'. These responses suggest that Louis is still not fully convinced that the comet is not a threat, for example by the religious actions he is trying to placate God. Once all this is all over, it is revealed that the comet was not a threat and in fact a 'hunt yielded to him vastly more than usual', suggesting that it was in fact a positive omen,  Halley's Comet, as a physical object outside of Louis's control, was therefore a great source of anxiety and uncertainty as what it meant for him or the Carolingian Empire. It would do well to mention here that Scott Ashley has recently suggested that it was not Halley's Comet that Louis and The Astronomer were talking about, but that the object in space was instead a nova or an appearance of Mercury. While this cannot completely be confirmed or denied, it still does take away from the reaction Louis and The Astronomer had to the object.

Why did the passing of Halley's Comet cause such an emotional response in Louis and The Astronomer? The passing of Halley's Comet was not the first time in the Vita Hludovici that political or personal fortunes could be associated with celestial objects or omens. Just before a military disaster in the Spanish March in 827, 'there appeared terrible battle lines in the night sky reddened with human blood flashing with the colour of fire'. This of course was seen as a negative sign, however in 828/829, Louis received a certain grain from Gascony that had fallen from the sky. We also find this association between fortunes and space in other sources such as Einhard's biography of Charlemagne, the Vita Karoli Magni. Which describes a number of omens before Charlemagne's death such as 'a certain black spot' which was 'seen on the Sun for a total of seven days'.  Paul E. Dutton has aptly described the implications of this constant connecting of cosmological events to fortunes on the political stage, with the sky becoming 'a political and theological hermeneutics'. Astronomy was therefore seen as a system of interpretation and methodology for matters that affected the ruling of the Carolingian Empire. Consequentially, the passing of Halley's Comet in 837, while not a physical threat to Earth, was still a seen as a political threat to Louis and other Carolingian rulers, due to the cultural and political meanings that celestial objects held.


This post has shown that studies on impact of culture on astronomy can be taken a step further, by highlighting the role politics often played in the study of the skies. This took multiple forms, from the production of texts for the purposes of prestige, the personal manipulation of knowledge and the political uncertainty objects in Outer Space could bring. Therefore, this article has highlighted the need to view astronomy not just as an empirical discipline or as a static cultural tradition, but something that is contingent and can be actively utilised in political settings. It is also hoped this post shows the need for further consideration of the politics of astronomy in other contexts, geographically and temporally. Nevertheless, it is still clear that in Carolingian Europe, astronomy played an important political role.


Primary Sources:

The Astronomer, Vita Hludovici in Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker,      Ermoldus, Thegan and the Astronomer translated by Thomas F.X. Noble. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

Einhard, Vita Karoli Magni in Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan and the Astronomer translated by Thomas F.X. Noble. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

Secondary Sources:

Ashley, Scott. "What did Louis the Pious see in the night sky? A new interpretation of the Astronomer's account of Halley's Comet, 837." Early Medieval Europe 21, no. 1 (2013/02/01 2013): 27-49.

Dekker, Elly. "THE PROVENANCE OF THE STARS IN THE LEIDEN "ARATEA" PICTURE BOOK." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 73 (2010): 1-37.

Dutton, Paul E. Charlemagne's Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2004.

Eastwood, Bruce S. "The Astronomy of Macrobius in Carolingian Europe: Dungal's Letter of 811 to Charles the Great." Early Medieval Europe 3, no. 2 (1994): 117-34.

Garrison, Mary. "The English and the Irish at the Court of Charlemagne." In Karl der Grosse und sein Nachwirken : 1200 Jahre Kultur und Wissenschaft in Europa, edited by Paul. L Butzer, Max Kerner and Walter Oberschelp, 97-123. Turnhout: Brepols, 1997.

Katzenstein, Ranee. "A Carolingian Masterpiece." In The Leiden Aratea: Ancient Constellations in a Medieval Manuscript, edited by Ranee Katzenstein and Emilie Savage-Smith, 5-10. Malibu, California: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1988.

McCluskey, Stephen C. "Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

———. "Martianus and the Traditions of Early Medieval Astronomies." In Carolingian Scholarship and Martianus Capella: Ninth-Century Commentary Traditions on 'De nuptiis' in Context, 221-44. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011.

Stevens, Wesley. "Astronomy in Carolingian Schools." In Karl der Grosse und sein Nachwirken : 1200 Jahre Kultur und Wissenschaft in Europa, edited by Paul L. Butzer, Max Kerner and Walter Oberschelp, 417-88. Turnhout: Brepols, 1997.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Dissertation Journal #1: Introduction and Analysing Social Networks in Ostrogothic Italy

For the purpose of keeping a record and for my own satisfaction, I have decided to start a journal for my third-year undergraduate dissertation on this blog. Naturally, I checked that this complies with my university's assessment guidelines and I am happy to say that I am free to go ahead with it. The first post will inevitably be introductory, however the format of following ones may vary. For example, some may be updates if I make an interesting discovery or on a relevant piece of primary or secondary material. These posts will also likely be in a less formal prose, due to the nature of a keeping a journal. For my dissertation, I am carrying out a Social Network Analysis (SNA) of Ostrogothic Italy using Cassiodorus' Variae. This post will therefore act as a way to introduce some relevant concepts and ideas

Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis is a methodology used to investigate social relationships within a group. In its simplest terms, looking at how people are connected and what defines those relationships. While visualisation via a graph (such as the example below showing a social media network) forms a key part of SNA, the methodology also comes with a range of metrics to examine a social network. A couple of examples include: centrality (used to measure the importance of an individual) and clustering coefficient (referring to the tendency for cliques or groups to form in a network). SNA is therefore a technique with a rich set of measurements to analyse connections and as Scott points out a well developed history.

While SNA developed from sociology, its used in other disciplines is increasingly prominent. Perhaps, unsurprisingly to the interdisciplinary nature of some parts of modern academia. Previous attempts at its use in History have included a study of four Anglo-Saxon texts, as well as early eleventh century Holy Roman princes. It has not however been applied to the Variae of Cassiodorus and I will outline later why I think it should be.

To carry out Social Network Analysis, one firstly needs to construct a database, using a program such as Microsoft Excel. There will at least be two sections for this: one for the 'nodes' or individual actors within a network and one for the 'wedges' the connections or lines between people. The nodes section contains 'labels'- these are simply characteristics of individuals. The best way to explain this is by describing the ones I am using to analyse the Variae. For example, I am tracking whether the name of an individual is Gothic or Roman (using two prosopographies as a reference) their gender, location and status or profession. These labels will be important in the final analysis at it allows you to examine the characteristics that define connections within a network. For example, are Romans more connected to other Romans than Goths? Do prominent politicians such as Faustus and Agapitus have a stronger network? Once the database is finished I will import it into a visualisation and metrics software such as Gephi. This is in order to identify patterns and make measurements relevant to the technique. While SNA does not need to be carried out using a computer, it is much easier to use one.

The Variae and Ostrogothic Italy

The Variae and sixth-century Italy are promising for Social Network Analysis for a number of reasons. The letters of Cassiodorus has a large literature of qualitative historiography, however a statistical analysis of them has not yet been undertook. This important as the source has been used to support a range of assumptions, such as that Goths were mainly soldiers and Romans civilians. Patrick Amory's suggestion is that the Variae were used to promote an ideology of civilitas, that Goths and Romans were distinct but harmonious parts of society is one of many arguments based on a qualitative analysis that can be examined using SNA.

This inevitably raises the question in how one should approach the Variae. Thomas Hodgkin, in his valuable 1886 translation of the Variae, treats them as empirical resource into the Ostrogothic chancery, providing exact and mostly accurate information about the running of the kingdom. However, more recent scholarship has tended to emphasise the literary qualities of the Variae more. Shane Bjornlie suggests that Cassiodorus later revised these documents, likely during his stay in Constantinople from 540 until 554 or leading up to it. This a result of the Gothic Wars, was an attempt to rehabilitate the Italian elite and allow them to keep their positions under Justinian by trying to show that they were not serving a 'barbarian' regime under Theodoric.

Although I am carrying out a quantitative analysis, I cannot simply ignore these literary qualities. However, this does not necessarily need to be problematic, the Variae is likely a mixture of data and technique. Bjornlie himself admits this. Therefore, the information I collect can be used for looking at the textual nature of the letters and as a window into the Ostrogothic Kingdom itself. Looking at what defines relationships during Theodoric's reign, with the Variae as a source, will therefore be beneficial in multiple ways.


Hopefully, this post has served to introduce some of the ideas and concepts that are relevant to my dissertation. It has certainly helped my clarity on the subject to try and write up and explain it. As I build my database more and more, I am already starting to identify patterns more and more and this will be fruitful when I start using the metrics available in Social Network Analysis for my study. I am sure it will be provide an interesting way to look at connections within sixth-century Italy.

Primary Sources:

  Cassiodorus, Variae translated in The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being A Condensed Translation Of The Variae Epistolae Of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator translated by Thomas Hodgkin. London: Henry Frowde, 1886.

     Secondary Sources:

  Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997

  Bjornlie, Shane. Politics and Tradition between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of  Cassiodorus and the Variae, 527-544. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

  The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Vol 3 edited by Arnold Jones, John Martindale and John Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

  Gramsch, Robert, Máirín MacCarron, Pádraig MacCarron, and Joseph Yose. "Medieval Historical, Hagiographical and Biographical Networks." In Maths Meets Myths: Quantitative Approaches to Ancient Narratives, edited by Ralph Kenna, Máirán MacCarron and Pádraig MacCarron, 45-69. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017.

  Scott, John. Social Network Analysis: A Handbook. 2017 ed. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 1991.

Friday, 15 June 2018

A Historiographical Conundrum?: A Commentary on the Debate Surrounding the Barbarian Settlements

The debate surrounding the settlement of the barbarians in the Western Roman Empire is one of the most hotly contested issues of the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods. This has been particularly apparent since the publication of Walter Goffart's 1980 book Barbarians and Romans, A.D 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation. Before this, the consensus on the settlement of the barbarians was mainly based around the Roman quartering system of Hospitalitas. This consensus, developed from Gaupp's 1844 work, stated that barbarians received shares of land that had been divided into three. This was an extension of a law from the Theodosian Code describing the practice of billeting Roman troops on civilian land (Hospitalitas). Consequently, this implied that the settlements involved a physical transfer of land. Goffart, starting with Ostrogothic Italy, offered a radical departure to this, suggesting that instead of receiving land barbarian settlers were given a third of the usual tax revenues, specifically put aside for them. This was based on two key terms found in Cassiodorus' Variae. The first being illatio tertiarum, previously this had been considered as a tax paid by those who were not currently hosting a Goth. He now argued this must be understood as referring to the aforementioned diverted and general tax revenue.The second term was millenarrii which Goffart believed referred to a unit of tax assessment that funded the payments made to the Goths, before this most interpretations thought this term referred to a commander of 1000 men.  Goffart was therefore arguing that barbarians were not given or rewarded with a share of land, but instead with a share of the normal tax revenues of the state.

With this article I hope to show that the large difference between the 'land' and 'tax' views in the debate can mainly be ascribed to the highly scant and inconclusive nature of the evidence. In essence, it is a historiographical conundrum that raises questions about how the historian should interpret and use evidence. This is not a new point, Goffart himself saw the implications of his argument for historians when he wrote 'what is at stake in all this not one's sympathy or antipathy towards barbarians, Germans or Goths, rather a conception of how history on the modern marvel may be legitimately be assembled and written'. However, I believe it is a seriously underdeveloped part of the discussion surrounding the settlements. Secondly, by doing this it will become clear that this debate is too centered around finding a single explanatory model for the barbarian settlement. It is often in danger of becoming mechanistic by trying to apply a single model to different geographic and political contexts. More nuanced interpretations of the barbarian settlements do exist, for example Halsall has already made the case for moving beyond the 'land' vs 'tax' debate. In fact, Goffart himself sought to address some of the issues present in his argument when he returned to the debate in 2006, for example stating that 'land' could have had multiple meanings. I will extend this discussion of the historiographical aspect of this debate in three sections, by focusing on successively on the settlement of the Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Burgundians in the Western Empire.

Settlement of the Ostrogoths in Italy

Goffart, when working out the technicalities of barbarian settlement, started with Ostrogothic Italy. This was because, he argued, that the evidence for this area was the most contemporary and detailed. One of his first steps was to try and demolish the evidence for a landed allotment found in Procopius' History of the Wars. This is a key step, as if Procopius is taken at face value a 'landed' arrangement is shown quite clearly.  Procopius states 'by giving a third part of the land to the barbarians, and in this way gaining their allegiance more firmly, he [Odoacer] held the supreme power for nearly ten years'. This of course is referring to the predecessor in Italy to the Ostrogothic king Theodoric and a supposed grant of land. Goffart proposes a number of reasons to distrust this statement. Firstly, that Procopius was from the Eastern Roman Empire and wished to describe Odoacer as a tyrant, with him also respecting Theodoric. The handing over of lands to the barbarians of course being seen as a negative act. Secondly, he also suggests another possibility, that Procopius is criticising the Roman practice of co-operating with barbarians. These criticisms of Procopius are quite valid and even some of Goffart's major opponents such as Sam Barnish distrust this statement as evidence of a landed settlement. Some such as Peter Heather, in an article on Gothic ideology, have suggested we should not be too quick to dismiss Procopius as a source. The debate around whether we should trust Procopius is in essence historiographical, raising the question about how much trust we should put in a source, and how literal we should take it.

Goffart then, as shown in the introduction, goes to use Cassiodorus' Variae to develop his theory for the mechanics of barbarian settlement. Overall, his thesis is supported very well by the evidence found in these letters. Goffart's strongest piece of evidence is perhaps Variae 2:17, in which Theodoric instructs the local authorities of Trent to cancel the taxes for land given to the Priest Butila. According to Goffart, this letter states that prior to the assignment to Butila, the land was subject to ordinary taxation, but once he received it became tax free. Now in a possession of a Goth, the tax revenue, the illatio usually set aside for the Goths, was no longer necessary. Goffart also uses Variae 5:27 to support his thesis for the settlement of Italy. Hodgkin's translation states that it orders the captains of the thousands of the men of Picenum and Samnium, suggesting that Gothic soldiers who served in the field should not lose their reward. Goffart takes a different interpretation of this passage suggesting that the term millenae refers not to a captain of the thousands, but the collective term to which all the Goths in these provinces are referred to as part of the process of receiving an annual tax revenue. The Variae can therefore be used to support Goffart's thesis and yet at same doing so leaves us with even more questions about how we should approach the sources for the settlement of the Goths.

Different viewpoints in the Hospitalitas debate can often hinge on an interpretation of a single term or sentence in sources such as the Variae. This of course can be problematic, should we take the meaning of the texts literal? Likewise, can a word mean something completely different in the context of another source? Furthermore, Goffart seems to place more trust in Cassiodorus than Procopius, but is his reasoning valid? As shown by Patrick Amory the Variae themself often had an ideological purpose. What I am wanting to show by raising these questions here is that the debate on barbarian settlement, as it is based on technicalities and often small pieces of evidence, acts as a focal point for discussion on how history should be carried out.

While Procopius and the Variae may be considered as direct pieces of evidence on the settlement of the Ostrogoths in Italy, there are a number of practical reasons and pieces of external evidence to suggest that a landed settlement in Italy is unlikely. If a landed assignment was made in Italy, the aristocracy would have deprived themselves of their own land and also their wealth. There is little evidence for this or any unrest and the idea that a landed allotment would have been favourable to the aristocracy if a land grant was the case does not seem reasonable. Furthermore, the fact that we can say barbarians owned land does not necessarily prove that they received it as part of a settlement agreement. Settlers could have used their income from the tax in order to buy land. This once again raises a historical issue. In the context of Italy, Goffart's thesis seems the most practical in contrast to the greater harm a landed settlement could have caused to the aristocracy. However, these assumptions are based on the absence of evidence or pragmatism, they are speculative even if it appears there are good reasons to believe in them.. Once again, the debate over the settlement of the barbarians in the Western Roman Empire forces us to encounter questions about how we should approach  evidence and whether there is room for inferences 'around' or 'outside' the sources.

Settlement of the Visigoths

Whereas, a tax based reward seems more likely for the settlement of the Ostrogoths in Italy, it is harder to prove this for the settlement of the Visigoths in Southern Gaul. Halsall suggests that the restricted reading for their settlement (and also for the Burgundians) makes Goffart's thesis more plausible. This is where I would make a departure and suggest that the absence of evidence actually makes a landed settlement more likely. Nevertheless, I still aim to avoid a general or 'mechanistic' view of settlement in the Roman Empire, emphasising a landed settlement in this instance only because of the particular context of the Visigothic settlement.

One of the major sources for Visigothic settlement is the fifth-century Code of Euric, which is only accessible through the seventh-century Visigothic Code. One can immediately identify that this poses lots of problems about whether we can trust the source and it is easy to see why Goffart leaves it to after his discussion of Italy. Nevertheless, there are a number of statements here that imply a landed settlement over a tax-based solution, even if they do so in a sketchy fashion. In 1:1:17 the code describes the process of returning land to Romans from which they had been deprived, this seems to imply physical ownership rather than a unit of tax assessment. 10:1:8-9 presumes that disputes would arise over land ownership, but there is an absence of any specific references to differences between Romans and barbarians. 8:5:5 refers to the fact that travellers may used land that has not been closed in and could be making a reference to the Roman system of hospitalitas. The Code of Euric and the Visigothic Code are therefore highly problematic when it comes to discussing the settlement of the Visigoths in Gaul, even if there are hints at a landed settlement. With the evidence being so scarce, we are forced to ask if the external context and evidence can be used to try and understand the mechanics of barbarian settlement.

Perhaps, the most convincing reason to believe that a landed settlement would have been likely in Gaul is because the disadvantages of doing so would not have been as prominent, in comparison to Italy. Most historians agree that the area the Visigoths settled in was experiencing some sort of crisis. Kulikowksi suggests the settlement of the Visigoths in in Aquitania II meant that the areas that had recently supported usurpation were flanked by the Imperial capital, Arles and the Goths. Burns suggests the settlement must be understood in the context of Constantius trying to stabilise Gaul and Spain. The use of combined Roman and Gothic garrisons in the latter proved to be a bad idea, so the Visigoths, according to Burns, were settled back in Southern Gaul. Nixon has also used a range of literary sources to show the turmoil present in this area at the time. Therefore, while historians do not agree on what exactly happened, it is clear that Gaul during the period of Visigothic settlement was experiencing some sort of political crisis. A landed settlement of the Visigoths in Southern Gaul therefore makes sense as a means of trying to bring the area back into the fold of the Imperial administration. This was perhaps short-sighted, for example the Visigothic King Theodoric II would later support Avitus in his bid to become emperor. Nevertheless, a landed and physical settlement might have been seen as a politically viable move at the time to recover a 'lost' territory.

This of course once again raises the question of whether we should use indirect evidence- that which does not mention the terms or mechanics of barbarian settlement specifically- to help solve our historical conundrum. As we can see very different conclusions can be made from this sort of evidence when we compare the settlement of Gaul to the settlement of Italy. This problem is made more difficult by the number of references in Gallic sources of the period that could be used to imply a landed settlement, such as those in the works of Sidonius Apollinaris and the Gallic Chronicle of 452. We must be careful when using these as they usually detail individual disturbances or settlements.  All this forces to ask whether it is possible and to collate fragmentary and ambiguous pieces of evidence to create a wider narrative about the barbarian settlements. As can be seen much of this will come to down to how the individual historian decides to approach the question of settlement and their choice of what is and what is not worthy evidence. Perhaps, what we can learn from all this historiographical pondering is that discussing the settlement of the barbarians does not have an easy answer and that trying to apply a mechanistic solution risks being overly simplistic.

Settlement of the Burgundians

The settlement of the Burgundians in the Western Empire equally raises many questions about how should approach the Hospitalitas Debate. Once again here, like the settlement of the Visigoths, the evidence is once again sketchy. The main source for a landed settlement in this instance comes from the Burgundian Code, in particularly titles 54 and 55 which belong to the Liber Consitutionum of 417. Much like the evidence from the Visigothic code, some of the titles imply a landed settlement quite heavily. Title 54 states 'It was commanded at the time that the order was issued whereby our people should receive one-third of the slaves, and two thirds of the land'. The use of slaves concurrently suggests the reference to land in this instance could imply physical ownership. It is difficult to identify the idea of a tax revenue instead of land here, when there is also a clause containing information on a 'physical property' such as a slave. In title 54 there is also a reference to barbarians and 'which hospitality assigned him'. This is using the language of hospitalitas, which is mostly not present in the evidence found in Cassiodorus' Variae. Similarly, this clause also states that land should not be taken contrary to the 'gift'. The language used here suggests it was a 'one-off' gift and it is difficult to suggest that this could mean a permanent tax revenue.

Title 55 also mentions the law of hospitality. Which once again raises the question of whether this should be interpreted as meaning temporary or permanent settlement. Perhaps, one of the strongest indicators of some sort of land based arrangement comes with the statement 'let the guests of the contestants not be involved in the quarrel'. Once again it is difficult to see how this language of guests or hospitality could be interpreted meaning as something other than a land settlement. However, there is not much to go on within the code to show if this is arrangement permanent or temporary. We are also faced with another dilemma, can we put trust in the source that what it is saying is accurate? Like the Visigothic code titles 54 and 55 of the Burgundian text survive in much later copies. At the same time it provides some of the most detailed evidence on the process of settlement for the Burgundians. This of course, once again shows, how the debate surrounding barbarian settlement brings is ultimately of historiographical concern, ultimately about how one should approach the evidence that is available.

A number of writers and chroniclers also point towards the possibility of a landed settlement. Propsper of Aquitaine and Hydatius describe the handing over of land. Wheareas, The Gallic Chronicle of 452 describes how Sapaudia was given to the remnants of the Burgundians , who had been defeated by Aetius, to be divided with the  native inhabitants. Wood has highlighted a number of problems with this source, for example its chronology is misplaced and the exact location of Sapaudia is unknown. Therefore, much like with the Visigothic settlement of Gaul evidence external to the law codes is fragmentary and is difficult to use when trying to discuss the settlement of the Burgundians. However, we should be careful in making direct analogies between these two settlements, despite the evidence initially appearing quite similar and with it leaning towards the 'land' side of the Hospitalitas debate.The evidence found in the Burgundian Code is quite different to that found the Visigothic Code, titles 54 and 55 more directly refer to the settlement of the Burgundians, whereas the Visigothic Code tends to only refer to the process of settlement by implication. The point of course here is that we should be careful when approaching evidence and trying to find an easy 'fit-all' solution to barbarian settlement.


This post has not necessarily tried to solve any of the problems regarding the settlement of the barbarians in the Western Roman Empire, but it has tried to show how the debate has a historiographical aspect. It forces the historian to question how they approach and how they should use the sources at their disposal, as vastly different interpretations have derived from a limited base of evidence, due to the different ways it has been approached. Secondly, it has shown that because of these varied problems it would be wrong to develop a 'copy and paste' mechanism in trying to understand the settlement of the barbarians. We cannot simply create a general explanation for barbarian settlement with the evidence available and so focusing on the individual contexts of the Ostrogothic, Visigothic and Burgundian accommodations is not only a necessity, but also good historical practice. 


Primary Sources:

Cassiodorus, Variae translated in The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being A Condensed Translation Of The Variae Epistolae Of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator translated by Thomas Hodgkin. London: Henry Frowde, 1886.

Chronica Gallica of 452 in From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader translated by Alexander C. Murray. Letchworth: Broadview Press, 2000.

Lex Burgundionum in The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad Additional Enactments translated by Katherine F. Drew. Philadelphia: University of Pennysylvania Press, 1972.

Lex Visigothorum in The Visigothic Code translated by Samuel P. Scott. Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1910.

Procopius, The History of the Wars translated by H.B Dewing. Accesed 15/06/2018 at  

Secondary Sources:

Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge; New York:                              Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Barnish, Sam. J. B. "Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire." Papers of the British School at Rome 54 (1986): 170-95.

Burns, Thomas S. "The Settlement of 418." In Fifth-century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?, edited by John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton, 53-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Goffart, Walter A. Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584 : The Techniques of Accommodation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Halsall, Guy. "The Technique of Barbarian Settlement in the Fifth Century: A Reply to Walter Goffart." Journal of Late Antiquity 3, no. 1 (2010).

Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations and The Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Heather, Peter. "Merely an Ideology? Gothic Identity in Ostrogothic Italy." In The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, edited by Sam Barnish and Federico Marazzi, 31-80. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007.

Kulikowski, Michael. "The Visigothic Settlement in Aquitania: The Imperial Perspective." In Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources, edited by Raplh W. Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer, 26-38. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

Nixon, Charles E.V. "Relations between Visigoths and Romans in Fifth-century Gaul." In Fifth-century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity?, edited by John Drinkwater and Hugh Elton, 64-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Wood, Ian. "Ethnicity and the Ethnogenesis of the Burgundians." In Typen der Ethnogenese unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Bayern : Teil 1 : Berichte des Symposions der Kommission für Frühmittelalterforschung, 27. bis 30. Oktober 1986, Stift Zwettl, Niederösterreich, edited by Walter Pohl and Herwig Wolfram, 53-70, 1986.

———. "The Barbarian Invasions and First Settlements." edited by Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey, 516-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Review: People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554 by Patrick Amory

The 1997 book 'People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy' by Patrick Amory  is one of many books to tackle the issue of identity, especially ethnicity,  in the 'transition' from the late Roman west to the early medieval period. Amory attempts to tackle this issue through two main lens: by looking at the relationship of individuals to a given community and by examining the often poltically motivated ideological tools that could be used to shape these ties. Amory's approach is ultimately insightful and at times highly nuanced, coming to the conclusion that the boundaries between 'Roman' and 'Goth' were far from static. however there a number of gaps left by the scope of his work.

The first chapters, as of reading now, discuss many themes and issues that will be familiar to those who have studied early medieval ethnicity before. The historiography of ethnic interpretations, the complexity of  labels such as 'Roman' and 'barbarian', are all issues you expect to be present and they certainly are. Therefore, while not always covering new ground, the beginning of the book acts as a useful preamble to the rest of Amory's arguments. The opening section of the book is also aided by a list of vocabulary, which is of a great benefit in what can often be a highly theoretical work.

Amory's initial argument is that Theodoric tried to perpetuate different ideologies on ethnography. Using sources, such as Cassiodorus' Variae and the Edictum Theoderici, he shows that this often over time. Theodoric's civilitas ideology consisted of promoting the idea of  the 'Romans' and the 'Goths' as two harmonious peoples. The 'Goths' being defined by military status, the 'Romans' being civilians. However, in the 520s this changed to an ideology of Gothic superiority, based on strength and the legitimacy of the Amal dynasty. He argues this may have been a a result of the the political upheaval in this part of his reign, such as his actions against Albinus, Pope John and Boethius. Under Theodoric's successors, ethnographic propaganda varied between these two ideas.

The argument here is made better by the point that the promotion of an ideology does not necessarily reflect reality. The changes shown in the texts show an attempt to change ethnic thought, but do not actually represent it in reality. This approach avoids any problematic assumptions with the sources. However, Amory could have made it more clear how these texts with ethnographic connotations were disseminated. Only throwaway references to studies on early medieval literacy, such as those by Rosamond Mckitterick, tackle this problem. It would have been good to see more space dedicated to this, particularly within the context of sixth-century Italy, when it forms an important part of his argument.

Amory also shows how the ideologies of the Gothic kings was only one of many competing discourses in sixth-century Italy. One was the idea of renovatio, the idea of a return to to a golden past, as promoted by the Emperor Justinian. Naturally, this took on the most importance during Justinian's attempt to reconquer the Italian peninsular and it aimed to appeal to the sensibilities of conservative Roman aristocrats. These competing ethnographic ideas could used be used politically by both sides in the context of the Gothic Wars.

                                          Theodoric the Great, as depicated in a medallion.

The other dichotomy tackled by Amory in this book is that of the Arian-Catholic divide. The traditional assumption is that Arianism was inherently 'Gothic', whereas 'Catholicism' was 'Roman'. A large amount of space is dedicated to undermining  the idea that these divisions were anything as simple as the labels suggest. For example, although some Popes may have been driven by an idea of a universal Christian Empire, the day-to-day practical implications of this were often affected by the working relationship the Papacy had with the Arian Ostrogothic Kings. Amory also suggests that individuals could change and adopt their 'faith' to suit political circumstances, as such the 'Arian' and 'Christian' divide were as fluid as other ethnographic ideologies in sixth-century Italy.

One of the other major parts of the book, and perhaps the most impressive, is the massive prosopography attached to the appendix. This is a study of all people who can possibly be identified as a Goth in sixth-century Italy- 379. Outside the work of Procopius, there are only a few people directly named as 'Goth'. Therefore, Amory approaches this section with the flexible criteria found in the rest of the book. This could be problematic for those wishing to use it as a simple factual resource, however as Amory suggests it is reflective of the numerous meanings 'Goth' actually had for various people and groups.

The prosopography also must be understood in the wider content of Amory's work. As a study of 'Gothic' individuals, it cleverly connects to the wider arguments of the book about identity and community by showing the wide range of individuals that can be classed under the aforementioned label. 

There are also a range of other articles attached to the appendix, which all relate to the wider theme of identity in Ostrogothic Italy. Including an inquiry into Gundila's property, which swapped hands during the Gothic Wars. An essay that expands on the 'Germanic' culture as a scholarly construct adds to some of the discussion found earlier in the book. The rest of the appendix covers some of the evidence that is noticeably absent in the main section of the book, such as archaeology and dress. All of these are insightful and well placed here as they are relevant, but not critical to the main thrust of Amory's arguments. 

                                        The mausoleum of Theodoric in Ravenna

To conclude, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy is a valuable contribution to discussion about early medieval identity. Its argument that identities such as 'Gothic' and 'Arian' were more complex in reality than how they were portrayed in ethnographic propaganda is persuasive. However, the scope of the work also leaves a couple of unanswered questions, for example how were ethnographic texts disseminated and is it possible to measure their effectivness? Such issues are critical to some of the points made in the book and it would have been good to see more time spent on them. Nevertheless, the book is a nuanced addition to the wide range of scholarly works on early medieval identity.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Between Barbarity and Belief: An Analysis of Gregory of Tours' Depiction of King Clovis

Book II of Gregory of Tours' Ten Books of Histories (also known as the History of the Franks) forms one the main narrative sources for the reign of the late fifth and early sixth century, Frankish King Clovis. Gregory's depiction of him has provoked much discussion. This is inevitable, due to the fact Clovis' reign predated the text by half a century  and yet remains our most complete source on him. Furthermore, the historiography on the account have long portrayed it as inaccurate and being influenced by the context of Gregory's wider rhetorical aims regarding faith.  Many of these studies have been concerned with finding the 'real' Clovis behind the layers of Gregory's narrative. This can be seen in an article by William Daly which reconstructed Clovis using more contemporary sources, such as the letters of Remigus of Rheims and Avitus of Vienne. These efforts are honourable, but it has meant that Gregory's depiction of Clovis has always been studied with the aim of uncovering facts about its subject. It has not been studied in its own right as written and literary account. This post aims to address these problems by suggesting that the account can also tell us a lot about Gregory and the uneasy position Clovis occupies in his mind, as a key figure in the formation of early Merovingian power and as a convert to Catholicism.

To achieve this, it is first important to explain why the account of Clovis in the Histories have been considered inaccurate. Daly argues that twentieth-century historians of Clovis saw him as barbaric, due to too much reliance on Gregory. According to this viewpoint, Gregory sought to demonise Clovis due to the fact he had been an Arian Christian, rather than Catholic. His portrayal is of a brutal and savage barbarian. Interestingly, Daly's idea of negative discrimination against Clovis in Gregory's account contradicts the judgement made by a number of other scholars. Halsall and Van Dam suggest the portrayal of Clovis in Book II is in fact positive, he is compared to Old Testament Kings. In these instances, Clovis is shown as moral figure. While these approaches all fundamentally agree that Gregory's account is unreliable they differ on what makes this so.

I argue that this is because there are tensions in the Histories regarding Clovis, he is neither fully 'barbaric' nor  'civilised'. He is instead in between these categories, Gregory does not portray him as fully one or the other. This is due to the fact that these definitions or labels are fluid, they contain a set of ideals which can never be fully realised in real or in this case literary form. When writing his account of Clovis, Gregory may be attempting to portray him as one or the other, but he simply cannot due to the openness of the concepts of 'barbarity' and 'civilisation'.

                                                   Ninth-century depiction of Clovis' baptism.
Clovis and the Bishop

One such instance can be identified when Gregory describes plundering following the defeat of 'Syagrius, the King of the Romans', a ruler of Roman origin in the north of Gaul ( His II.27). Apparently, 'many churches were plundered by the troops of Clovis, for he still held fast to his pagan idolatries.' The beginning of this episode appears at first to be polemical. Clovis is shown to be carrying out a negative act due to his paganism. However, as the account goes on it becomes more complex.

The soldiers under the command of Clovis stole a large ewer and other works from a Church. The bishop of which sent messengers to the King to beg for its restoration to the Church. Clovis' response is contradictory, it is both pagan and yet at the same time shows respect for the bishop. He states 'Follow me to Soissons, where all the objects which we have seized are to be distributed. If this vessel for which your bishop is asking falls to my share, I will meet his wishes.'

Far from being unashamedly positive or negative, Gregory's account of Clovis seems to have a level of nuance. The King is seen as unwilling to abandon the idea of sharing loot from warfare. This may be the result of the fact that this practice persisted into Gregory's era,  while being 'barbaric' in origin, plundering was still important in the sixth-century Merovingian kingdom. Therefore, Clovis' use of it is simultaneously civilised and uncivilised. To Gregory, Clovis' actions are somewhere between these two labels. This can also be seen by the fact that he is willing to give his share back to the Bishop.

A more interesting dynamic opens in the passage as we move on, Clovis demands that he is given above his normal share as King, in order for him to return the ewer. This is unexpected, he is not completely violating tradition, but is demanding an exceptional case because of the need to return the bishop's stolen goods. Only one man opposes this saying that he is shall nothing but his fair share. Clovis later strikes this man down with his axe, upon recognising him on the parade-ground a year later.

The contrast between Clovis and this agitator can also help us understand how Clovis is neither fully barbaric or civilised. The latter is described  as 'feckless, fellow, greedy and prompt to anger', matching many of the Classical barbarian stereotypes. Clovis instead shows traits that differ from these, he 'hid his chagrin under a pretence of long-suffering patience'. Clovis is therefore portayed as being more emotionally restrained. However, it is important to note that this  was also a pretence and that he struggled to do this, suffering while remaining patient. He shows behaviour which falls between the stereotypes of barbarity and Romaness.

These levels of nuance in the text do not exist because Gregory is an objective reporter, but because they are rather a reflection the uneasy space Clovis occupies in his mind. In fifth-century Gaul there were competing ideas regarding identity that could not easily fall into the binary ideas of 'Roman' and 'barbarian'. Gaul itself still had a strong Gallo-Roman identity. There were competing ideas of kingship: Christian, Roman, Pagan and the symbolic 'Long-Haired' ideology. Clovis himself was an Arian Christian, rather than a Catholic, before his conversion.

My assertion is that when Gregory approaches writing his account of King Clovis, his account is contradictory because labels such as 'Roman' and 'barbarian' are too simplistic to reflect the actual complexity of the era he is writing about. Therefore, while one may argue Gregory's account aims to portray Clovis as barbaric or the opposite - a moral figure, the text itself shows him to be fully neither. Whatever Gregory's intended meaning was, there are ideas in the text that run counter to it, due to the concepts of 'Roman' and 'barbarian' being open and fluid. It is impossible for Gregory to write about Clovis without these contradictions- even if sometimes they are almost unnoticeable.

Leading up to the Conversion

The faith of Clovis is also problematic for Gregory. According to him, Clovis converted directly from paganism to Christianity, when in reality he had already adopted Arianism before his baptism. This has previously been explained as a direct conversion making Clovis look more like an Old Testament king. Ian N.Wood has tried to argue that in the Histories, Clovis' military successes are directly tied to his Catholicism.

However, the Histories also shows tensions regarding this- Clovis is once again neither fully 'barbaric' or 'civilised', with faith having an important role to play in this. This is most apparent leading up to his conversion. Clotild, the wife of Clovis, wanted their first son baptised. However, 'no sooner had he received baptism than he died in his white robes' (His II. 29).  Clovis reproaches Clotild for this, saying if he had been born under the pagan gods he [the son] would have survived.  This is intriguing, as this seems to directly contradict what you would expect in account by Gregory- the Christian baptism, not a pagan one leads to the child's death.

Further on in this passage, Clovis and Clotild bear a second son, called Chlodomer. He also began to ail once baptised as a Christian, however this time Clotild prayed for the son and he recovered. There seems a contradiction here; Chlodomer starts to die when baptised, but then also recovers through prayer. Two acts of Christian faith seem to have opposite effects. What can explain this?

I argue it originates from Gregory's simplification of religion in the age of Clovis. As mentioned, Clovis is shown as a pagan, when in reality he was an Arian Christian. Religion like 'barbarity' was also fluid in fifth-century Gaul. Gregory is unable to simply use the labels of 'Christian' and 'Pagan' when describing Clovis without tensions arising in the text. Contradictions emerge because while trying to represent Clovis he encounters the difficulty of representing him in such static terms, which do not match the actual openness and fluidity the had in the fifth-century.

After the Conversion

After his conversion to Catholicism, Gregory writes about Clovis' wars. Wood argues this emerges from an attempt to portray Clovis as the champion of Christendom, as seen by his wars a number of Arians within Gaul. Two of these were the brothers Gundobad and Godigisel who ruled over the territory between the Rhône and the Saône. Both 'like their subjects belonged to the Arian sect' (His II, 32). It may come as a suprise then that Clovis decides to ally with one of them.

'Godigisel heard of the victories won by King Clovis' and so 'he sent envoys to him in secret'. Clovis 'gladly accepted the offer'. Clovis in this instance seems quite practical, he is willing to be in alliance with an Arian if it helps him to defeat other heretics. This could have been a temporary, but it nevertheless shows a willingness and flexibility that one might not expect from a moralising text.

Not much later in the text Clovis shows a lesser degree of tolerance: 'I find it hard to go on seeing these Arians occupy a part of Gaul' he states (His II.37). Clovis now wants to take them over 'with God's help'. Once again we face two contradictions in Gregory's portrayal of Clovis, a flexible figure who is willing to ally with an Arian if it suits his current situation and a less tolerant man who wishes to drive all Arians out of Gaul.

Why do these contradictions exist? This is once again because the language of being civilised and uncivilised, of barbarity and belief, is inadequate to deal with the actual actions of Clovis in the account. As argued, these terms are in reality very open and do not have a fixed definition. Gregory's military action here can be seen in both or a mixture of these terms. Therefore, regardless of the way he is trying to portray Clovis- simple or not, Gregory encounters difficulty in doing so without a level of contradiction in the text.


This article has shown that Gregory's account of King Clovis is worth studying beyond its ability to accurately reflect the fifth-century king. While it may have been intended to demonise or moralise Clovis, the account does not show him in such simple terms. It has tensions within in it, Clovis neither appears fully barbaric or civilised. This is because dichotomies such as these are highly problematic and suggest a degree of conformity within the definitions which does not exist. To conclude,  Gregory's account is therefore contradictory, as he is unable to express his account of Clovis without being trapped by these closed and simple terms.


Primary Sources:

Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories (593-94) translated by Lewis Thorpe in The History of the Franks. London: Penguin, 1974.

Secondary Sources:

Daly, William M. "Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan?". Speculum 69, no. 3 (1994): 619-64.

Halsall, Guy. Barbarian Migrations and The Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Van Dam, Raymond. "Merovingian Gaul and the Frankish Conquests." In New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol.1,  edited by Paul Fouracre, 193-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wood, Ian N. "Gregory of Tours and Clovis." Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire 63, no. 2 (1985): 249-72.