O mi Germane – ubi es?

15 April, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have no less than four books on West European history mostly concerned with the later part of the first millennium CE. I read the introductions because historiography is my focus. Historiography is important when researchers of European decent think about the 5-6th c. and onwards as the beginning of a passage more or less in its own right from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Two of the books are anthologies and two are monographs.

Gillett, Andrew. 2003 (ed.). On Barbarian Identity. Critical approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages. Brepols publishers, Turnhout.

Noble, Thomas F. X. 2006 (ed.). From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms. Routledge. London

Smith, Julia M. H. (2005). Europe after Rome: a New Cultural History 500-1000. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Olson, Lynette. (2007). The Early Middle Ages: The Birth of Europe Palgrave Macmillan. New York.


O mi germane – ubi es? is a pun, and a very old one too (Quintilian c. 95 CE referring to Cicero (01)), because germanus means ‘(full) brother’ as well as ‘German’, thus the mock sentimental: Oh ‘my brother’ ’my German’ where art thou? Today, we may ironically ask this remembering the rambling ways of German brothers now that they are not as dangerous as they were. To begin with this pun wasn’t always funny and Strabo in earnest suggested the following:

Now the parts beyond the Rhenus, immediately after the country of the Celti, slope towards the east and are occupied by the Germans, who, though they vary slightly from the Celtic stock in that they are wilder, taller, and have yellower hair, are in all other respects similar, for in build, habits, and modes of life they are such as I have said the Celti are. And I also think that it was for this reason that the Romans assigned to them the name “Germani,” as though they wished to indicate thereby that they were “genuine” Galatae, for in the language of the Romans “germani” means “genuine.” Strabo Geography Book 7:1:2.

Later on his etymology lost its significance, but in Tacitus there remains a measure of Barbarian virtue in Germani. From the 2nd c. CE and onwards into the 5th Germani and Germania were more often depicted in traditional poses on coins as defeated. In the same period Gaul is depicted as restored.

Germania and Gallia

In part the two anthologies discuss the same problems. One concerns the barbarians as a political phenomenon: did migrating barbarians organized in nations put an end to Rome? The other question concerns the ethnic unity of Germanic tribes and kingdoms: was there a common core identity among people called Franks, Alemanni, Visigoths etc.? Gillett (ed.) doesn’t think so being especially critical of the construction of ethnicity. In his anthology Derek Fewster, who doesn’t write about the middle of the first millennium ce., come closest to understanding ethnicity as the outcome of bad historical analyses. Noble (ed.) qualifies these questions, since revision is the model for all the books in the series to which this particular volume belongs. Instead of relying on the fall of Rome and the origin of the Germanic Early Medieval kingdoms it has been common, since the 1990s, to talk of the ‘transformation’ of the Roman world. I textbooks suitable for first year students the first sentence would point out that although Rome in the West disappeared as a political system – Roman civilization had already profoundly changed societies in northern Europe among those the people the Romans called Germans. The ongoing transformation of what was formally Rome is the complement of, and thus complemented by, the ongoing transformation of what was formally not-Rome in North and West Europe.

Even to Romans there was something about Germanic ways that transformed the land where Germani lived, i.e. Germania. When the poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote a wedding poem to King Sigebert and his Visigoth Queen Brunhild, who came to Metz in what we would term Gaul from Toledo in Spain. Venantius expressed his astonishment that there was a marriage bed for her in Germania – not in Gallia. Rhetorically he asks:

Quis crederet autem / Hispanam tibimet dominam, Germania nasci? –
Who would have believed / that with you there was born I Spain a mistress for Germania?  (Venantius Fortunatus, Book 6, Poem 1, ll. 117-18).
Since he presented the poem to the couple at their wedding, and became a popular court poet, his analysis of the Merovingian court was commonly accepted, emblematic of Germania and consequently of the Germanic ways. Spain, on the other hand did not qualify as Germania, despite its Visigoth court in La Mancha. The Visigoths were lords in Spain while the Franks had moved Germania into Gaul, at least into its northern parts, when they settled there. The examples suffice to show that the questions discussed in the two anthologies have been ‘with us’ and difficult to handle for the last 2000 years at least.


Nevertheless: The fall of Rome? and Germanic ethnogenesis? are questions typical of a post-war discussion presently dismissed by most. For theoretical reasons such discussions should have been abandoned already in the 1980s, but obviously that was not the case and pointless dichotomies such as: did Rome fall or did it not fall? Was there a core ethnicity or not? – continued to dominate the discussion whether researchers agreed or disagreed with one another or agreed to disagree. Especially Ethnicity and Identity continued to preoccupy researchers and only in recent years has the relation between ethnicity – heralded by ancient or modern voices – and bad historical analysis (a very common phenomenon then and now) been emphasized.

It should not be forgotten that the Romans themselves introduced the idea of ‘the political fall’ such as the Republic and bad ‘ethno-historical analysis’ such as Tacitus’ ‘Germania’. Caesar writing about the Civil War and Tacitus writing about Germans both wrote of something else too, and so do Gillett (ed.) and Noble (ed.). They write in the flickering torches of the EU and the comfortable straight jacket of Eurocentric post-war history departments, i.e. – paragons of the 6th c. royal and petty-royal halls; the nodes of a political network and prestige economy; a gender-controlled environment engaged in introspect historical narrative.

Sigebert coin

Using the concept of Ethnicity as a discursive node tying it to whatever source material available, is a way of ordering the discourse of a discipline in times when its male dominance is questioned. This shows already in Laura Bohannan’s essay ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’ (1966) (02) in which the patronizing ethnicity-driven claim to the correct interpretation of Hamlet rests equally well with Bohannan’s male friend in Oxford, England and elders in Tivland, Nigeria, despite the fundamental discrepancies between their correct interpretations, Both her friend and the elders are convinced that Laura Bohannan being a foreigner, but in reality a woman and thus not quite up to male standards, is not able fully to grasp ‘correct interpretation’. As the obvious representatives of each their ethnic group, they are both capable of contextualizing Hamlet as their story using ‘Hamlet’ as a discursive node. The capacity to see ethnicity in relation to border lines between the individual and a group, thus defining the individual as either inside or outside its social territory, makes it easy not least for conventional males to look at discipline as (my) territory and defend the discipline by discussing ethnicity taking its status as a discursive node for granted and disagreeing with others about ‘ethnicity and correct interpretation’. Arguing about the correct interpretation of ethnicity strengthens the structure of the discipline inasmuch as it creates schools combating each other without questioning the discursive node even if relabeling or subdividing it – ethnicity/identity – may be part of the struggle.

Scholars who think that ethnicity is unimportant or indeed the outcome of inferior historical analysis, are thus automatically excluded from the disciplinary discourse. In this case they tend to be women. Scholars who comprise traditional discursive nodes are included in the disciplinary discourse. In this case they tend to be men. Some prominent historians therefore figure in Noble ed. as well as Gillett ed. And some have two chapters in Noble (ed.). Most of the authors in Gillett (ed.) are obviously the young and sometimes angry generation. Nevertheless they all belong to a group we may call the Anthology Group.

Reading an introduction as a text in its own right means reading it as an epilogue as well as an introduction and in the case of the anthologies we are probably right in suggesting that the introductions were not written until all the contributions were available to the editor, who then sat down to analyse and explain what the anthology was all about in some ways knowing it already. Therefore, reading the introduction to an anthology as an epilogue is a method rather than simply unfair.

Writing a monograph one could do more or less the same, i.e. write the introduction when the rest of the book was already finished. But even so, the introduction would often have brewed in the author as the result of an interaction between the book as imagined and what has so far been written. The introduction develops and colours the book in the process of writing it.

Significantly there are some concepts that are consciously avoided in both Smith and Olson such as ethnicity and its correlate identity. Moreover, the European core area Germany, southern England and northern France is not anymore a must in a book pointing out the diversity of the Early Middle Ages. Cognitive history holds a prominent place and the break with the revisionist view is central: Julia M Smith

The awareness that archaeology doesn’t simply confirm or question the written sources, but make up ‘brand new evidence for the Early Middle Ages’ is another important component of both Olson’s and Smith’s books.

In the end of her introduction in a most typical way, Olson refers to a picture of the front of the Franks Casket commenting upon it in the following distinctly non-ethnic way:

Lynette Olson

Franks casket


Representing a radical break with the tradition of the anthologies, one is not surprised to find that one of the younger anthology authors has written a review, fault-finding and territory-defining, demonstrating a formidable inability to grasp Lynette Olson’s general approach and a sniper’s attitude, if not craftsmanship, to scientific discourse.

The anthology group, including the reviewer, is a good illustration to Fredrik Barth’s views upon ethnicity. Quoting Barth on almost anything, why not on his third approach – on boundaries: If a group maintains its identity when members interact with others, this entails criteria for determining membership and ways of signalling membership and exclusion (03) – and remembering the way the reviewer takes ethnogenesis and thus also ethnicity to be a discursive node in the sense of Discourse Theory, it becomes obvious that the anthology group interacts and struggle within itself to dominate the this node. Both the Noble (ed.) and the Gillett (ed.) group acknowledge the ethnicity node and the reviewer, who doesn’t forget to mention ethnogenesis as self-evident (although in his opinion misunderstood by Olson beyond comments), takes every opportunity to exclude Lynette Olson, as he would probably have tried to exclude Julie Smith, from the group. That is a safe thing to do because they would not contemplate membership. Thus he shows his group membership, his individuality and his loyalty as s boundary defender. Nevertheless, ethnicity, whether performed by groups of the past or a male anthology tribe, is just a reflection of bad historical analysis of the past or the present.

There is an interesting socio-biological component of the male defense of what seems primarily to be a scholarly territory perhaps not understood as social boundaries. Fredrik Barth, none the less, would have advised that the Anthology Group understood itself in terms of social boundaries.


(01) According to Quintilian, Cicero used the pun thus: Cimber hic fuit, a quo fratrem necatum; hoc Ciceronis dicto notatum est: Germanum Cimber occidit—There was this Cimber who murdered his brother; a fact recorded by Cicero in the words: “Cimber killed his ‘full brother’/’German’.” Quintilian Institutio Oratoria Book 8, 3, 29.

(02) The essay can be found at: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1966_08-09_pick.html

(03) See page 15 at http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic228815.files/Week_2/Barth%20Introduction%20Ethnic%20Groups%20and%20Boundaries%20.pdf


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