Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our ninth post, Sam Rowe explains his research into the Romanness of Merovingian kings, specifically the sons of Chlothar I in the second-half of the 6th century.
What are you currently researching?
I’m currently working on ‘the Romanness of Merovingian Kings’, broadly speaking. The Merovingians were the first dynasty to reunite and rule over Gaul in post-Roman times, combining what had formerly been dioceses into a kingdom roughly covering modern France, Germany and Switzerland.
I’m specifically focusing on the sons of King Chlothar I (497-561): Charibert, Sigibert, Guntram, Chilperic and a putative, illegitimate son called Gundoald. I basically look at their actions, their portrayal and self-portrayal in both texts and material culture, and try and determine if part of their identity can be described as Roman. Indeed, they are chiefly described as Franks, who were a people (gens) to which one could identify ethnically: on first analysis, they lacked some of the chief layers of Roman identity, the parental and ancestral ones.
Romanness is a tricky thing to define, but one of the most general definitions might be ‘a (partial) model of identity with a specific set of layers of identity’. Going a bit further, it is important to note that the layers were only part of an identity and their hierarchy could be reshuffled (like layers on an onion).
This could even depend on the situation: to try and challenge the king’s monopoly on authority, a duke (one of the highest positions) might identify as a Roman, but when arrested for some crime, ask for a lighter sentence as a Frank. Indeed, identity is a deeply intimate and personal construct.
What led you to research this topic?
On an academic level, I’m fascinated by identity: how people perceived themselves, how they grouped themselves, what they thought about others; going back to the Annales and the study of mentalities, I suppose.
On a personal level, I think I was drawn to past identities and especially composite identities due to my own identity crisis, with a hybrid identity that doesn’t fit simplistic views. Such views often exclude people without a ‘pure’ identity (i.e. not ticking an arbitrary amount and kind of layers), using a type of ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy to ask if can you call yourself X if you’re not a citizen, or don’t speak Xish.
In my case, I am half-English (on my father’s side) and half-Swedish (on my mother’s side), but did not grow up in England and do not speak Swedish or have Swedish citizenship – layers people consider important to be part of the ‘in-group’ (which depends on outside recognition).
For identity writ large in medieval historiography, I get the impression that there’s still a lot left unexplored, especially at the level of individuals or very specific groups of people (e.g. kings, bishops, nuns). Guy Halsall has pointed out in his work that subtler approaches to identity and ones that aren’t at the level of a gens are still quite rare.
And there’s a lot of previous work to build upon and revise – early medievalism and gender history are still getting to know each other in terms of gendered identity. This is especially the case with the Merovingians, who attracted a precocious interest in queens and nuns. Whilst gender is not my current focus, I think it does illustrate how closer inspection of identity and the incorporation of new theories are needed in the field.
What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?
I would have to say Venantius Fortunatus’ collection of poetry, the Carmina, one of the sources for my dissertation. He has a bizarre line in his poetry, which translates to something like: ‘I observed your fingerprints left on the milky gifts, and the imprint of your hand remained here where you pick[ed] up the crema’. I just find it fascinating – not only the poetic imagery in and of itself, but also the different ideas that inhabit those verses, showing how an educated post-Roman might think of certain symbolic associations and try to translate ideas.
The Christian idea of purity with the (implied) white colour of milk and crema, the impression of deeply personal fingerprints on a malleable but ephemeral surface. It’s also frustratingly unclear what milky gifts and crema are, though – either could be a soft cheese, butter, blancmange or panna cotta. Danuta Shanzer suggests the last two, and they wobble, so I’d go for that.
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
Gregory of Tours’ Ten Books of Histories is an obvious contender. He has a very convivial way of talking to the reader, both in Lewis Thorpe’s English translation and the original Latin Quite often he’ll make a bitter, ironic witticism or act sassily: ‘A crowd of peasants did follow him, as so often happens, for people are so gullible.’ I’m sure there are others with a similar tone, but most medieval authors I’ve read have been a bit drier. For the sake of an example rather than any specific dislike of him: Jean de Roye is rather tedious. It was fun and really readable, for a 700-page 1500-year-old text.
And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archives?
There isn’t much archival work to be done in my current research, although I’ve done a fair bit for my side focus on sigillography, the study of wax seals used to authenticate charters (legal decisions recorded on sheets of parchment). The Strasbourg archives were some of the cleanest, slickest and well-organised. They’ve been organised specifically to facilitate charter-based and sigillographic research – to the point we were encouraged to put the seals on tiny pillows when consulting them.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
Definitely to befriend the author(s) of a source and try and understand them, get down to their level, humanise them. I think there’s a tendency to go for this hard, distant approach to sources; with a grid, like a statistician. Or to let our prejudices and dislike of people in sources get the better of us.
I see the historian’s role as closer to the field anthropologist or ethnologist, immersing themselves in a culture and asking questions, leaving the grid aside for a moment and just going with the flow. Of course, it’s much harder if you’re writing about ‘bad people’, although the line is hard to draw.
I love Chaucer’s work and let him guide me this way, but he was also, by our standards, a horrible person. In some regards it’s not unlike the ‘death of the author’. Theoretically, it should allow us to approach sources with a healthier kind of emotional subjectivity – and, paradoxically, by not judging past people and their morals with our modern bias, objectivity. The complete opposite approach is valid too, so it’s a matter of personal choice.
And the worst?
‘It will only take an hour or so’, me to me, as I regularly overestimate my ability to complete a That’s a tough question. I guess one annoying thing that stuck with me was the idea from one professor that writing should be academic and jargonistic in a very uptight way (that unintentionally excludes people). This even extended to avoiding any informal terms at all. Now, there’s definitely a level of formality to adhere to, but I also think you shouldn’t close yourself off to using some creative language and expressions.
Why should a technological transformation ‘spread to the middle then lower classes’ when it can ‘percolate’? Imagery can help retain and even qualify imagery, as long as the point isn’t implicitly changed by it (here, perhaps, the speed and pervasiveness). Otherwise, it’s just silly prescriptivism and arcane for the sake of being arcane.
I hear it’s even worse in the hard sciences – the Bogdanoff twins were in the news recently, and their PhD thesis was absolute gibberish of no scientific worth, but which sounded like it meant something. Granted, most academic work is for an audience of peers – but even then, the clearer the arguments, the better. No one wants to have to read through something that looks like a passage from Finnegans Wake on steroids.
Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
I’m afraid it’s a rather bookish answer, but the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must-visit. They’ve got fantastic collections of historical artefacts and modern art in the permanent exhibit, even better temporary exhibits (the latest was Gold of the Great Steppe), a well-stocked reading room, and the staff are really friendly. It’s always pleasant to go, and it’s free!
 It’s always useful to point out that this isn’t my position or the modern definition. Ethnicity is a slippery concept which has many layers to it: the medieval definition included ancestry, but sometimes it didn’t, and ours usually doesn’t (but still can, since so much of identity depends on recognition within the group). But in working with contemporary sources, you need to work with their definitions to at least some extent.