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”).