Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.25


P.S. Barnwell, Kings, Courtiers and Imperium: The Barbarian West, 565-725. London: Duckworth, 1997. pp. ix + 269. ISBN 07156-2763-5. £40.00.


Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, kulikows@chass.utoronto.ca.

Kings, Courtiers, and Imperium is a sequel and companion to P.S. Barnwell's first book, the abysmal Emperor, Prefects and Kings (London, 1992). One therefore approaches the new work with only the most modest expectations. Like its predecessor, Kings grew out of a Univerity of Leeds doctoral dissertation. Also like its predecessor, the present work is less a reasoned monograph than a compilation of half-digested sources, primary and secondary. Unlike B[arnwell]'s first book, however, Kings is at least adequately compiled. While it offers little that is new or interesting, it also adds to its sources none of the egregious error of the earlier work.

The format of Kings will be familiar to readers of B.'s first book. It offers four parallel parts, viz. on the Regnum Francorum, Visigothic Spain, Lombard Italy, and Anglo-Saxon England. Within each section there appear four (sometimes five) chapters, on the sources, kings and queens, palatine officials, and royal administrators. This organisation encourages repetition, as B. himself acknowledges (p. 2). He contends, however, that the approach is justified by its results. What, one must therefore ask, are those results?

The dustjacket states that Kings "constitutes a complete reappraisal of the development of kingship and royal administration" in the barbarian kingdoms. It is perhaps unfair to hold an author to the claims of the publisher's marketing department. But B.'s own claims are equally grandiloquent. "The analysis of the preceding chapters," he states in his conclusion, "has demonstrated that traditional judgements of many aspects of seventh-century royal government stand in need of revision, as they have often been reached without taking adequate cognizance of the character and limitations of the sources" (p. 172). Apart from illustrating the porridge-like texture of B.'s prose, the quotation is remarkable in being wholly false.

The book demonstrates almost nothing, because it contains almost no analysis. Each chapter is essentially a list, whether of sources, administrative posts, or situations in which a king or queen appears. When the list is finished, so is the chapter, and it is time for the next list to begin. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach and it is even potentially useful as a guide to the incidence of various administrative offices in the sources. A monograph, however, is the least efficient way to convey this sort of information, since the reader is at the mercy of the author's selection process. A dictionary or Handbuch conveys pure description much better, so from a monograph one wants assessment and interpretation. These B. fails completely to provide.

One of the major criticisms levelled against B.'s first book was its failure to use the vast secondary literature on late Roman institutions as a guide to the primary sources it was trying to analyse. The result was the repeated "discovery" of well-known facts, and the persistent misunderstanding of fifth-century conditions through a neglect of fourth-century precedents. In the present work, that criticism can be turned inside out. B. approaches his primary sources only through the lens of secondary literature, so no new insights ever peep through. It is true that most of the notes cite the medieval sources directly. What is more striking, however, is the way in which every single analytical comment in the text is attributed to a modern scholar in the endnotes.

This heavy dependency manifests itself in two ways. First, each part of the book relies on only one or two secondary sources for its general structure. Thus we find the Regnum Francorum according to Ian Wood, Lombard Italy as per Chris Wickham, and Visigothic Spain after the model of Roger Collins (cited, incidentally, from the unrevised version of Early Medieval Spain). Each of these scholars is a reliable guide to his own territory, but B. would have achieved a more nuanced perspective had he attempted to incorportate the ideas of others as well. (Eugen Ewig on the Franks, G.P. Bognetti on the Lombards, and Jose Orlandis on the Visigoths are all cited copiously in the bibliography and more or less ignored in the text).

A second facet of B.'s dependence on the secondary literature appears in his discussion of specific historical problems, in which every interpretation offered is derivative. Even this would not necessarily be a bad thing: sources are so thin on the ground for the seventh century that there are as many divergent interpretations of them as there are scholars to study them. A judicious weighing of earlier opinions would be a useful exercise. B., unfortunately, does not do this, preferring, where there are disputes, to canvass both sides and refrain from judgement himself. With far too many officials -- Lombard scariones or Merovingian patricii for instance -- B. goes no further than to conclude that this scholar says one thing and that scholar say another thing, a method of little help to anyone.

This points up one of the main difficulties with B.'s chosen topic, a difficulty that would have been faced by anyone working on the period and subject: the sources for a systematic study of early medieval administration simply do not exist. This is precisely what B. manages to conclude from his "analysis" of the "character and limitations of the sources": we should very much like to know what the financial officials of the Visigothic kingdom did, but the sources are not equipped to answer that type of question. B. is right on this, and in nearly every other instance where he tells us that the sources are too obscure to draw firm conclusions (only on Lombard referendaries might he have done more than he does). This is not, however, the revelation he thinks it is. Though B. regularly inveighs against historians who fail to take "adequate cognizance" of the sources' limitations, these historians remain safely anonymous strawmen.

Indeed, I can think of no historian of the seventh century who would actually insist upon the adequacy of our sources. Most, however, have attempted with some success to get around evidentiary lacunae with flexible methodologies. This is something B. fails signally to do. In the first place, there is a problem of definition which he nowhere addresses. What, that is, does the word officium signify in the seventh century? It is a legitimate question, and not one that admits of an easy answer. B. regularly places inverted commas around the word "office", thereby implying that we should not take its meaning as self-evident. But he nowhere tells us what he thinks it means. Many of his examples show men with different titles performing the same function (e.g., notaries and referendaries) or men with the same title performing very different functions (comites in both civilian and military roles). In one such instance (p. 128), he concludes that a distinction in titles "may be less one of function than of rank." This contention is entirely plausible, but is nowhere demonstrated.

Nor, for that matter, is another major contention ever explored systematically. B. believes that his treatment will show us that the barbarian kingdoms were in fact less bureaucratized than generally thought. If anything, however, his piling of citation upon citation suggests that, on the contrary, the early medieval kingdoms were positively filled with government officials, whose roles no amount of hypothesizing will elucidate.

This, of course, returns us to the source problem. One means by which others have tried to counter the problem is with comparative study of the various barbarian kingdoms. The parallel structure of B.'s book ought to have encouraged just such a comparative approach, but the opportunity is almost wholly lost. To conclude that law-making was the main common denominator among the Frankish, Gothic, Lombard, and Anglo-Saxon kings (p. 174), is thoroughly anti-climactic and hardly justifies the effort of the preceding pages. What is worse, some topics that cry out for comparative treatment fail to get it. Thus the discussion of Visigothic iudices lacks discussion of either late Roman precedents or contemporary usage in other kingdoms (p. 86). Likewise, the intensely repetitive discussion of duces (pp. 46-50 for the Franks, 79-82 for the Visigoths, 109-118 for the Lombards, and 156-7 for the Anglo-Saxons) should have been replaced by a single section, relevant to all regions, which said in one place what is instead said in four: that the word dux was an official title in every one of the barbarian kingdoms, but that four times out of five our sources use it as a non-technical term.

A final topic on which comparative work would have been revealing is that of consortes regni. Early medieval kings frequently associated others in their kingship, both to provide for more effective rule and, more importantly, to safeguard the succession. B. treats this phenomenon in both Visigothic and Lombard regna, but in each case provides a different explanation and fails to cross-reference the other discussion. Thus for the Visigoths, the post of consors appears as an innovation (p. 63) while the Lombards are said to have borrowed their version of it from the Byzantines (p. 99). Given the amount of space B. devotes to restating the views of J.N. Hillgarth on the Visigothic monarchy's Byzantinizing policy, it is surprising that the argument used for the Lombard consortes makes no appearance in the Visigothic chapter. In any case, each discussion should have taken the other into account, and the whole issue suggests a grave inability to control the sources.

There are further examples along these lines, but space forbids a complete list. B. omits a great deal of relevant secondary literature, and his habit of listing in the bibliography works not once cited in the notes is disingenuous. (It is clear, for instance, that B. made no use of Garcia Moreno's Historia de Espana visigoda, which would have improved his discussion of Gothic history before Leovigild, or of A.R. Lewis' "The dukes in the regnum francorum", though both appear in the bibliography). The discussion of imperium promised in both title and introduction materialises only in part four, on the Anglo-Saxons, where B. has S.C. Fanning's "Bede, imperium, and the Bretwaldas" (Speculum 66 [1991], 1-26) to guide him.

There are numerous typographical errors, and irritating stylistic tics persist from B.'s earlier book. Thus we find a vast number of Uitae, and the momentarily baffling "Uulternense", though B. must surely know that in Latin orthography a majuscule "u" is a "V". The consistent spelling of Francia as Frankia is novel but also an eyesore. The "Lombard regions of Austrasia and Neustria" (p. 127) are presumably meant to be Benevento and Spoleto. And finally, the insufficient grasp of Classical sources so noticeable in the first book here produces a "lex Papia Popea." Not one of these slips is earth-shattering, but they make an already weak book worse.

Kings, Courtiers and Imperium fulfills none of the promises made in its title, its dustjacket, or its introduction. At best it is a list of citations of administrative titles in Latin sources from about 600 to 730, subjected to little organisation and no analysis. There is no reason for anyone to buy or read this book. On the other hand, doing so will cause no active harm. By the standards of the author's first book, that is something of an achievement.