Link to review: Say it with me: Völkerwanderung
February 2, 2011
May 10, 2010
At Discover I have a long review up of Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. I would recommend the book, especially if you enjoyed The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Empires of the Silk Road. In any case, I want to highlight two points in the author’s argument which I think bear more emphasis.
First, the author argues that there was a mass migration of German (and others, such as the Iranian Alans) across the limes as the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. This is in contrast with the model that the barbarian war bands were of trivial size, and most cultural and social evolution occurred through a process of bottom-up emulation. In this model the Ostrogothic elite of Theodoric’s time was a motley ad hoc construction of recent generations whose origins were diverse, German and non-German, without much time depth. Against this model is that of total replacement, which was common in the early 20th century. Empires and Barbarians takes a reasonable middle road; in very few regions was there total replacement, even in what became England where cultural obliteration of the Romano-British heritage was nearly total. But, the author also argues that the core of groups such as the Goths and Vandals were German tribes which had relocated from Central Europe, and whose identities were deep and to a great extent ethnically demarcated. Additionally, not only was this movement of some size, it also included women and children, and so was a classic Völkerwanderung.
But just as there was no total replacement of Romans in northern Gaul, despite the non-trivial influx of Franks into that region, so the migration out of Central Europe did not leave the old Gothic or Vandal heartlands empty. In fact, the majority of those German tribes and clans which identified as Goth or Vandal may have remained in the heartlands. But critically the elites, and in particular the ruling houses and the free warriors and their families decamped. Roughly the top 10-20% of the population.
This is not so surprising. If you read Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America you observe the importance of “forward elements” in British migration to the United States. In Puritan New England there was a proactive attempt to discourage the emigration of the lower classes (as well as the blooded nobility), and a strong bias toward the “upper middle class” (the professions, the gentry, etc.). In the lowland South nobility of England often brought their own hierarchical social system along with them, including their customary retainers. It took some wherewithal to move en masse in an organized fashion. But the author also points out that in the ancient world there was little motive for peasants to move, as there was little difference in quality of life from locale to locale. In a world where productivity gains were marginal and zero-sum economic psychology dominated the motive existed for the rent-seeking elites to move onto greener pastures, not the productive peasantry who were the green pastures no matter where they were resident.
A class dimension to the Völkerwanderung is something that I think might be important, because I recall reading archaeologists noting how robust and tall the Lombards who entered Italy in the 6th and 7th centuries were on average. In the work I had read this was interpreted naturally as an ethnic difference, as the Germans were a larger folk than the local proto-Italians. But if there was this class bias in migration then the size difference has a more natural explanation: the malnourished majority of the German population never emigrated, rather, it was the hale and robust warrior elite who show up in post-Roman states. But there’s a bigger issue here, and that’s the point that pre-modern elites viewed wealth through their own lenses as rentier thugs. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasizes that the collapse of the Roman Empire did result in a social and economic regress. The data from Britain for example shows that air pollution because of industrial economic activity (broadly construed) did not reach the levels of the Roman period until the 18th century! In Empires and Barbarians the author also agrees that the Roman Empire was wealthier than the barbarian lands to their north and east, and in particular that the German dominated Jastrow and post-Jastrow societies practiced an extensive form of low productivity (per unit of land) agriculture which made their conquest economically a losing proposition for the Roman Empire. And naturally the relatively low per unit economic productivity of the German heartland resulted in fewer rents for its local elite.
And yet set against this we have the arguments in works such as A Farewell to Alms which assume as a default model that the median human in all societies from the emergence of humanity until 1800 was poor. Caught in the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were always swallowed up by population increase. This perspective gains some support from Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD. Before 1800 the differences in median wealth across regions is marginal, with the largest gaps being 50%, and 10-20% more typical. From our modern perspective everyone was caught in the Malthusian trap, on average, though some were marginally more well off than others.
But it isn’t the average difference which matters, it is the aggregate whereby you calculate total wealth in a political order. By that measure, even if the Roman peasant was no more well off (or even less well off!) than the average peasant on the Baltic, the high population density of the Roman political order was extremely beneficial to any rentier elite seeking to capture or extract surplus productivity from these teeming masses. In a pre-modern political order poverty may have been a permanent feature of the lives of most, but the configuration and implementation of subsistence and the distribution and flow of goods above subsistence were of the essence. It is much easier for men with swords to steal from densely settled agriculturalists than nomads or slash & burn cultivators. The Roman peasant may not have been wealthier than the German peasant, but the Roman aristocrat of the 4th century lived a life of glamorous opulence in relation to the German warlord. Similarly, the Chinese peasant may not have been wealthier than the cultivators who lived beyond the frontier in 16th century Manchuria, but the Manchu dynasty fell into orders of magnitude more wealth after they toppled the Ming because they captured the much richer flow of rents.
The narrative of Empires and Barbarians is much denser than the above, and the analytical framework more sophisticated. But I think it is critical to emphasize why ancient barbarian elites were so keen on conquering civilized states, and why there seems to have been less mass migration of the peasantry. In the modern world when we think of differences between societies in regards to wealth, complexity or glory, we consider the median man on the street. This would tell us little for most of human history, rather, we would have to focus on the top 10% to truly get a sense of the difference, and in particular the top 1%. To a great extent civilization has been a racket which operates to the benefit of the tiny elite by making rent-seeking much more efficient.
Peter Heather’s new book, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, exhibits none of the minor faults which I noted in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. Heather manages to robustly balance the need for both breadth and depth, and I would even offer that this semi-sequel to his previous book, The Fall of the Roman Empire, is a superior piece of scholarship in relation to its predecessor (if a bit less compelling as narrative because of the weighting toward archaeology as opposed to literary sources). The author reports that he’s been working for 15 years on Empires and Barbarians, and it shows in the wide spread of sources and multidisciplinary nature of the argument. And that argument is in short an overturning the post-World War II orthodoxy among archaeologists, and a lesser extent historians, that cultural evolution occurs overwhelmingly through a process of the diffusion of memes, and is rarely accompanied by the flow or replacement of genes. This model is a counterpoint to the pre-World War II conception of the shift of language being a consequence of the shift of nations; ergo, it was once presumed that the rise of the English and the fall of the Celtic British occurred via the driving out of the latter by the former toward the maritime fringes of Wales and Cornwall. After World War II the sources were reinterpreted so that the Anglo-Saxon tribes were refashioned into very small compact bands of warriors who toppled the old Roman-British elite, and imposed their own language and cultural forms on the local populace (Norman Davies’ takes this model as the default in The Isles). If this was the outlook when it came to Britain, which became England and witnessed the extinction of the Celtic and Latin languages as well as the Christian religion with the arrival of the Germans, then naturally an even more skeptical take on mass migration would hold for the post-Roman German states of the Franks, Visigoths and Lombards who had a far more marginal cultural affect on the local Roman population (in late antiquity and the early Dark Ages the sources distinguish between the indigenous Romans and the various Germanic tribes decades after the fall of the Western Empire). In Empires and Barbarians Peter Heather reiterates that the view that the German tribes replacing the Roman era populations is false. But, he also objects strongly to the post-World War II consensus which would tend to minimize the extent of migration, population movement, and demographic displacement. In short, Heather wishes to rehabilitate the Völkerwanderung.
In previous posts I have outlined a theoretical framework which implies non-trivial migration of peoples, so I am amenable to Heather’s revisionism. In fact, I was a bit surprised that Heather outlines a process very similar to what I envisage in its broad sociohistorical parameters, though his knowledge of the particular instantiations of the general processes in the context of post-Roman Central Europe naturally surpasses what little I knew. But before I get to that, I would like to enter into the record a major objection I have to the argument in Empires and Barbarians. Many times within the text Peter Heather contends that the centuries long linguistic continuity of particular Germanic tribes, for instance the Burgundians, necessarily entails that the barbarians had to have brought women on their migrations. He marshals plenty of other literary and archaeological data to support this contention. For example, literary sources and analysis of burial grounds of the Goths from this period in the Balkans attest to the existence of a wagon train of women (and children) who followed the barbarian warbands along the Roman roads. But the argument from linguistics seems very weak. We have copious cases where native-speaking women are not necessary, at least in preponderance, to perpetuate a language. Heather gives one example within the text itself, he notes that the current data seem to imply that the majority of the women whom the Norse brought to Iceland were not of Norse origin. Rather, they were likely to be Irish to British. And yet no one doubts Icelandic’s Scandinavian affinity as a language. Similarly, across much of Latin America the vast majority of the population derives from the unions of Spanish men with indigenous women. The offspring, and the societies they created, are Spanish-speaking (excluding the Guarani bilingualism in Paraguay). Someone with a better grasp of the details of sociolinguistics can enlighten us on the exact details of how language is transmitted, but I’m rather sure that women are not a necessary precondition for linguistic continuity. In fact, parts of Latin America, such as Argentina, offer up an example where a continuous flow of men could have resulted in a post-Roman Germanic society where most of the ancestry was German, even if all the female ancestors during the founding generation were Romans (Heather observes that in some cases such as England and northern Gaul it looks as if there was a continuous migration of Germans for decades, if not centuries).
But that is a minor quibble in a book which is dense with data and rich with analysis. Heather’s argument is eminently reasonable and moderate. Many of the more extreme advocates of a post-modern understanding of ancient tribal identity presume that groups such as the “Goths” could emerge almost spontaneously from a welter of infinitely diverse populations (you know someone has lots of method but little knowledge when they constantly use quotations around the most banal and unproblematic terms). Examples of Roman senators raising their sons wearing trousers and speaking in Gothic can be offered up as the norm, so that a Gothic elite could emerge from the local population almost immediately. All that was required was a tiny elite of warriors to trigger the emulation from below. In this way cultural forms of the Vandals, Goths, and Anglo-Saxons swept across Europe with only trivial flows of people. It also dovetails with the revision that the Roman Empire did not fall, that it was not invaded, rather, it evolved and transformed. Heather is not convinced that the persistence of tribal identities such as that of the Goths for centuries in an environment where they were heavily outnumbered by Latin speaking natives could have persisted if their original identity was so tenuous, fluid and open. Rather, he seems to argue that there was an ethic core, to which some could assimilate, but which had at its heart an original demographic pulse from Central Europe. I find this persuasive because I have become convinced that cultural ideas move across societies far less quickly, at least in the pre-modern past, than we had long assumed. The Goths and other barbarians brought a suite of particular, distinctive, linguistic, religious and sartorial characteristics as an integrated unit, and persisted in their distinctiveness for generations, and sometimes centuries. In the post-Roman world of continental Western Europe they were eventually assimilated by the Roman substrate, and I see little evidence of their genetic impact. They were truly dwarfed by the local populations, but that can remain true even if a whole Central European tribe moves en masse into the Roman Empire. A tribe of 50,000 is a drop in the bucket demographically in many Roman provinces, but if 10,000 of those were men under arms, in the late Roman period this entailed significant capability of projecting and enforcing force. In Britain the case is somewhat different, there are genetic data which imply that some substantial replacement did occur, in particular on the “Saxon Shore.” These data are perfectly understandable when one considers the near total abolition of Romano-British norms and forms from the lowlands of what became England by the 7th century, at sharp variance with the dominance of Romanitas among the Franks, Lombards and Visigoths.
To me the falsity of the post-World War II archaeological consensus in the case of the fall of Roman Empire is so probable that Heather’s debunking is not of particular interest. Rather, I was more curious as to the underlying rationale or causes he provides of the migration. His argument is complex and multi-layered, but one aspect which I found congenial was his contention that the relatively low intensity form of agriculture practiced in German Central Europe did not produce sufficient surplus to satisfy the demand for luxury goods by the free class of German males. The taste for luxury goods emerged due to proximity to the Roman Empire, which exported them in return for region-specific luxuries (amber) or commodities. The migration of adventurers and soldiers from beyond the limes into the Roman Empire, often in military service, predates the barbarian migrations. Rather, Heather argues that the push of the Huns in the late 4rd and early 5th century, combined with the economic pull of the wealth of the Roman Empire, caused mass simultaneous movement of warrior elites from the German heartland during this period. A movement of peoples, not a band of brothers. While the Roman state could have handled one or two tribes, as it had in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the simultaneous push from the mouth of the Rhine down to the mouth of the Danube was too much. Though some of the German groups were defeated, others were not, and once the initial breakthrough occurred there was a positive feedback loop as other tribes rushed in to take advantage of the weakness of the Empire.
The selective migration of warrior elites and their families during this period had major long-term effects. Heather suggests that it was during this period that one saw the transition of much of East-Central Europe, from Poland down to Bohemia and the north Balkans, from being one of Germanic speech to Slavic speech. German peasants no doubt remained after the emigration of their elites after the collapse of the Roman limes. And Heather does not believe they were exterminated, rather, he points to literary and archaeological evidence which suggest that there was a set of norms among Slavic migratory bands to absorb and assimilate other marginalized groups (interestingly, this was definitely the case with the Russian expansion into Siberia, where many Muslim Turkic groups were absorbed into a Russian Orthodox identity and became Cossacks). Heather implies that part of the Slavic expansion was fueled by a change in mode of production, a switch to more intensive farming techniques which produced population growth and demic diffusion in all directions, in particular toward Poland and the Baltic more generally. Because of the relative lack of literary evidence this section of the book is not totally persuasive, but the fact remains that much of what was German in 500 was Slavic in 1000.
Empires and Barbarians concludes at the year 1000. By this time intensive farming and urban civilization, at least in fragments, had reached most of Europe. Local elites were no longer transitory in their expectations, so a mass migration of a whole ethnic group was no longer in anyone’s interest (much to gain, but much to lose!). The non-Mediterranean farming system of three-fields, as well as improved plowing technologies, had shifted the demographic center of gravity north. Extreme gradients of elite wealth and social complexity which had characterized the Europe of the Pax Romana were no longer operative. Without gradients there would naturally be less flow. The great chaotic demographic transient between the rise of Rome and the emergence of medieval Europe was over.
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