Civic identity and the B-word in sixth-century Francia

The Second IHR seminar I attended this academic year was Erica Buchberger from Oxford on “Romans in a Frankish world: Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and ethnic identity”. This started with the question of why Gregory of Tours, our most extensive source for the sixth century doesn’t refer to ‘Romans’ as living in sixth century Gaul. It’s sometimes been suggested that this was either because there weren’t any Gallo-Romans anymore, or (as Helmut Reimitz suggests) that Gregory chose not to mention that particular ethnic identity because it undermined his Christian vision of unity and community.

Erica argued instead that Gregory was writing for a local audience and with a default that those mentioned were Romans. What he used therefore was more locally significant markers, referring to people as of senatorial family and sometimes giving the names of their fathers. While Gregory isn’t consistent on giving details on ethnicity, he is on social networks: the trio of social rank, family and city are the standard way of identifying someone. When an abbot asked St Gallus his name, birth and homeland, for example, he got told his father’s status and city.

Venantius Fortunatus’ uses of ethnic identifiers is more varied: he doesn’t use them in his hagiographical texts, but he does in his poetry. Erica argued that this was because contrasts of Romans and barbarians were expected in panegyric: indeed one woman (Vilatheuda?) was described by Fortunatus as “Roman by effort, barbarian by nature”. Erica concluded that both Gregory and Fortunatus were using Roman models of identity that focused on mainly local classifiers and that they described the world as their ancestors had done, despite all the changes that occurred.

Erica’s paper was a useful reminder that our ideas of “ethnic” identity can get too hung-up with one particular level of identity, that of “a people”, and ignore other possible foci. Maybe it’s because I’m a rustica myself (coming from a Sussex hamlet so small that only Chris Lewis has ever heard of it), that I tend to underestimate the importance of civic identities. It would be interesting to see to what extent such identities could be found, if we look hard enough, in other texts from the seventh century onwards.

(As for the B-word of the title, this arises from a comment in the discussion afterwards by Peter Heather: in the fourth-century, the Romans regarded calling someone a barbarian as very rude – the equivalent, Peter reckoned, to “nigger” or “wog”).


5 thoughts on “Civic identity and the B-word in sixth-century Francia

  1. She must be working on a pretty interesting dissertation on ethnicity. At Kalamazoo she gave a paper on the post-Arab Conquest survival of Gothic identifiers in Iberian sources. Interesting argument re Gregory. I’d have to see the evidence for that to decide if I’m persuaded. I don’t buy the argument that there weren’t any Gallo-Romans left. He’s pretty open about his background and when you look at his subjects in his various writings there are plenty of Latin names. And as Dr. Landes mentions, a separate wergild is established for Romans as late as the Lex Salica Karolina. That may have been nothing more than a recognition of tradition but it seems to indicate the continuing existence of those categorized as Roman.

    However he may have believed those were the people most likely to read what he was putting together.


  2. Thanks for all your comments. A few individual replies:

    Gilly – there’s a long antique tradition of identifying yourself with a city, especially in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire. This goes back, I assume, right to the city states of the seventh and sixth-century BC. I think we tend to underestimate it in Britain (well, I certainly do) because Romanised cities in England only lasted a few centuries and so didn’t really develop the same traditions as those in the East (or even in the south of France).

    Richard – presumably you’re referring to the argument about the dating of the Pactus Legis Salicae and whether it should be seen as sixth century or fourth century? I must admit I’m not up to speed on that debate, but I would just point out that having a higher wergild doesn’t necessarily equate to being more socially approved. For example, there are some laws which have higher wergilds for women/marriageable girls than men or boys, but that definitely doesn’t mean that females are imagined as better than males. So a high wergild for someone with a particular usefulness could co-exist with social disdain.

    Curt – thanks for the reminder about Erica’s Kalamazoo paper: I didn’t hear that, but Jon mentioned on his blog that she’d also given a paper on Visigothic identity at a conference in Oxford. One of the most interesting comments she made during questions was that she was also very interested in political identities in the Merovingian period, and thought that maybe we’d concentrated on ethnic identities to the exclusion of those too much. Of course, it’s only when you’ve got sources detailed enough to show you political factions that you can start to discuss political identities, whereas you can (with caution) use archaeological and onomastic evidence to look at ethnic identities, so that’s an option for Frankish history, but not Visigothic.


  3. Seminar CXLV: Gregory of Tour’s F-wordI’m sorry it is taking so long to get momentum up again here. The arrival of Internet at home only occurred quite recently and all my teaching is on new courses so weekly maintenance of them is taking a while. There’s also an issue about ex…


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