BMCR 2020.09.13

Das Selbstverständnis der gallo-römischen Oberschicht. Übergang, Hybridität und Latenz im historischen Diskursraum von Sidonius Apollinaris bis Gregor von Tours

, Das Selbstverständnis der gallo-römischen Oberschicht. Übergang, Hybridität und Latenz im historischen Diskursraum von Sidonius Apollinaris bis Gregor von Tours. Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde - Ergänzungsbände, 111. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. viii, 232 p.. ISBN 9783110626131. €99,95.

Hess’s subject is the ‘Selbtverständnis’‘self-image’—of the indigenous Romanised upper-class of Gaul in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. It is important because this class played a key role in the formation of France, the powerhouse of medieval and early modern Europe. His aim is to refute the view that an aristocratic self-image of distinct Romanness persisted from c. 450 to 700 and resulted in a significant tension between Gallic aristocrats and incoming Germanic kings and nobility. Such a notion is, he asserts, largely the artefact of modern research (pp. 8-9, 19, 116). Hess proposes instead that Gallic aristocratic writings reveal an almost immediate acceptance of the new, non-imperial, socio-political entities: ‘Übergang’—transition. This was followed by a bolting together of Roman and Germanic peoples and cultures: ‘Hybridität’—hybridisation. Finally, in the dominant ‘Frankenreich’, there emerged a single Merovingian society, in which a dim memory of the Roman past might occasionally prompt interesting and productive, but disarticulated and socio-politically insubstantive, borrowings from a vanished age: ‘Latenz’— —latent potential.

He sets his argument within a theoretical model, that of the ‘historischer Diskursraum’. For this I have no ready translation. Its force seems to be that to understand this period we must understand the contexts in which its writers wrote and were read. What each author committed to words was informed by his upbringing, education and experience —the social markers’ that determined and were determined by his social group (pp. 19-20). Contemporary readers of the same background would have their self-image both confirmed and modified by what they read and would, in responding to the author, confirm and modify his, too: there was a mutual consolidation and ‘re-tuning’ (p. 20: ‘modulieren’) of values.  The process was progressive. The self-image of the original author and readers would inform the upbringing, education and experience of later readers (pp. 105-9, 113), but these would interpret what they read in the light of their own, inevitably different, interaction with the world about them. Aristocratic writing was therefore communicative, performative, constructive and, on those occasions when it dwelled on its own form and formative power, poetological (pp. 74-5). It produced no fossilisation of values, hence Hess’s three phases of change. Though always generously acknowledging the extent to which he is indebted to the thinking of others in formulating it, Hess presents ‘Diskursraum’ as his particular contribution to scholarship.

In section 1, ‘Einleitung’ (pp. 1-26), Hess introduces his topic and the manner in which he will address it. In section 2, ‘Die römische Oberschicht Galliens in Briefen und Briefsammlungen zwischen Imperium Romanumund regna: Sidonius, Ruricius, Avitus’ (pp. 27-117), he examines three famous communicative, performative and, in the case of that of Sidonius Apollinaris, particularly poetological (pp. 103-15) letter-collections. His initial focus is on the social markers that these authors saw as distinguishing the upper-class from the rest of society. These he identifies as: important lay office (‘Weltliches Amt’); good— aristocratic, Gallo-Roman—breeding (‘Familiäre Abstammung’); the right contacts (amicitia); a grand lifestyle (luxus); self-conscious general Romanness (Romanitas); and a proper, classical, education (‘Bildung und Sprache’). For Sidonius, famously, as well as for Ruricius and Avitus, education was most prized. All three appreciated a good lifestyle, useful contacts and high office, whether Roman or Germanic. Breeding, however, much noticed by Sidonius, is given little attention by Ruricius and Avitus; and direct reference to Romanness is rare in Sidonius and absent in Ruricius and Avitus. According to Hess, this shows the Gallic upper-class swiftly adapting itself to contemporary circumstances. While maintaining much of its past culture, it no longer identified itself as belonging to what was left of the Roman Empire: it was transitioning from Roman to Germanic hegemony. Sensitivity to the ‘historischer Diskursraum’ is important here because it allows us to see how the collection, editing, publication and re-reading of letters in socio-political contexts very different from those of their original composition was itself instrumental in re-shaping the upper-class code of conduct (‘Verhaltensanleitung’) to fit the new reality (pp. 80-2, 89).

In section 3, ‘Zwischenräume’ (pp. 118-30), Hess considers the scanty sources available for the generation or so following Sidonius, Ruricius and Avitus. He finds that funerary inscriptions and saints’ ‘Lives’ indicate neither a continuing Roman culture nor any significant ethnic distinctions. Although the Epistolae Austrasicae appear to follow the same tradition of letter-collection as the correspondence of Sidonius, this is illusory and so they are unhelpful in identifying any Gallic aristocratic self-image. Most of the little reliable evidence we have comes from the notoriously difficult Visigothic, Frankish and Burgundian law-codes. These, though often apparently addressed to former Roman citizens and sometimes distinguishing between these and local Germani, should not be seen as indicating the continuance of ‘Roman’ group-feeling. They were, rather, inclusive: seeking to bind the whole of a kingdom’s population together under a ‘hybrid’ upper-class (cf. p. 122).

In section 4, ‘Fragmentierter Raum: Venantius Fortunatus’ Dichtung und Gregors von Tours Libri Historiarum Decem’ (pp. 131-75), Hess presents a world in which the Germanic and Roman upper-classes were completely merged. The old social markers had gone; the former communicative, performative and constructive aristocratic ‘Diskursraum’ was shattered. Neither Venantius, the Frankish court-poet, nor Gregory, the Frankish bishop, politician and writer, displays any personal affinity to Romanitas. Although both use ‘Roman’ terms, they do so not to denote ethnicity, ancient pedigree or status or, still less, political affiliation, but rather to humour current nobles of many backgrounds. And while Venantius can use ‘Roman’ to praise cultural sophistication, Gregory, notoriously, avoids all ethnic labels in his account of his own day (pp. 158-60): ‘Roman’ or ‘Frank’ were no longer part of the ‘historischer Diskursraum’. Venantius and Gregory still refer to the key fifth-century marker of education, but in a very different way from Sidonius Apollinaris. Though Venantius may praise a person’s education and eloquence, it is clear that he feels this the due of any great man, (e.g. pp. 168-9). And while Gregory famously deplored the current state of education in Gaul, for him education mattered less for its cultural value than for the way it gave senior churchmen the rhetorical tools they needed to survive in the hurly-burly of Merovingian politics (pp. 169-70). Hess explains all these changes in this, and other, former important Gallic aristocratic social markers as ‘Latenz’. The old world was gone, but not wholly forgotten and, like an old battery, still charged with useful power that could be drawn upon by those able to access it. Thus, despite his complaint at the start of his ‘Histories’ about the poor state of letters in Gaul, it was recollections of old achievements that moved Gregory to write the work; and the poetic talent of Venantius is indisputable (pp. 172-3). Such exploitation of the legacy of the ‘fragmented Diskursraum’ was repeated by others throughout the Middle Ages (p. 174).

Hess ends with a short section 5, ‘Ausblick’, in which he takes the story of ‘Latenz’ into the seventh century. He urges that, with Romanitas long gone, this is not where we should be looking for ‘the last of the Romans’; and he reiterates his point that ethnic distinction in Late Antique and early Medieval Gaul is an anachronistic creation of recent research.

As Hess freely admits, throughout he builds upon scholarship that has long established the basic history of his period and initiated debate over ethnic self-identification and creation in the West. Hess’s references also show that, in proposing that real ‘Romanness’ ended very quickly after the imperial abandonment, he is not alone but part of a ‘minimalist’ wave. I myself argued for this in a paper published in 2013. Here, however, Hess makes the case at much greater length and much more forcefully, rightly admonishing me for accusing Sidonius of fleeing from reality into an idealised Romanitas and offering an apter label for the state of Roman culture in Gaul by the time of Gregory of Tours: not a ‘veneer’, but a ‘latency’.[1] His book is, however, not without its problems.  Despite its relative brevity, I found it a difficult and time-consuming read. My concentration was frequently broken by its uneven and fragmented sections, and by its long and complex sentences and new (to me) expressions.

In terms of substance, Hess, faced by the insuperable task of proving a negative, has to resort to hammering away at the perceived weaknesses of his opponents’ case. This leads, in Section 2, to a ‘card-index’ treatment of letter-collections in which his determination to cite every relevant reference leads to an excessive accumulation of examples, repetition, and the prioritisation of the citation needed to make a point over the meat of a particular letter (e.g. p. 62: Ruricius’ despatching of a glass-worker to Celsus). More specifically, although Hess concedes, in line with the ‘linguistic turn’, Foucault’s ‘discourse’ and recent historical research, that sophisticated upper-class communication was only a part of ‘reality’, and that the people with whom he is dealing —the ‘literary set’—were not the whole Gallic aristocracy (p. 21; cf. pp. 27-8, 47-8), his enthusiasm may tempt the reader to overlook this. Before the fall of the Western Empire there were clearly many ‘non-writers’, more concerned with caring for their estates and following rural pursuits than with literature and Roman office. To these we may add, after the Germanic takeover, those who sought service under the new kings (e.g. pp. 50-3, 56, 75-6, 87, 91, 94-95, 98, 100, 143), in the process acquiring their language and culture. What was their self-image? Hess observes (p. 143) that barbarian service provided an alternative to high office in the Church. He maintains that, despite recent questioning of the view that the Gallic episcopate became an aristocratic monopoly, becoming a bishop did remain a significant upper-class privilege: a replacement for positions in the old Empire, which explains why most of the sources we have on the Late Antique Gallic aristocratic self-image were written by bishops (pp. 14, 99). Gallic Christianity is therefore important. However, while noting the attention given to this in recent research (e.g. p. 99), Hess chooses to say little about it directly, and treats his bishops as lay actors, more interested in administration and politics than in spiritual and doctrinal matters (cf. pp. 100-2). This is an opportunity missed. Romanitas based on the, old and exhausted, Vergilian foundation-myth, was now at an end.  From the later-fourth century, Christianity radically changed the outlook of a number of notable western aristocrats: devotionally, in the attraction of asceticism (Paulinus of Nola); ideologically, in the formulation of the view that people owed loyalty, beyond Rome, to a ‘City of God’ (St. Augustine); and culturally in the realisation that Romans might act like barbarians and barbarians like Romans (Salvian). There was also the emergence of a new western power base alongside the imperial (the nascent Papacy) and of a ‘Gallic’ church’ (e.g. pp. 68-9, and Avitus Epp. 34). All this must have affected the Gallic aristocratic self-image. And, in terms of administration and politics, one might have expected something on the early tension between Arian Germani and Nicene Gauls.

The weakness and strength of Hess’s approach are epitomised in Section 3, ‘Zwischenräume’. This is short, fragmented and not entirely persuasive. The law-codes, for example, surely tell us mostly about Burgundian and Frankish, not Gallo-Roman, thinking. On the other hand, Hess’s treatment of the material is scrupulously honest in showing how little there is on offer, and in refusing to stretch poor sources to suit his case. As he says at the start of his book (p. 3), one cannot hope to achieve ‘reality’; one can only make the best of what is available. Overall, therefore, though there are questionable points of detail, I am broadly convinced by what he says and admire him for covering so extensive a period and assembling so much material in such a compact space.


[1] ‘Un-becoming Roman. The end of provincial civilisation in Gaul’, in S. Diefenbach and G. M. Müller (eds), Gqllien in Spätantike. Kulturgeschichte einer Region, Berlin; Boston, 59-77, at 74-5.