Some Thoughts on Identity

Some Thoughts on Identity


I’ve been doing some thinking lately on identity and ethnicity as regards my research topic of the Carolingian Spanish March. Way back when I was first writing up my dissertation, which is still the kernel of the current book project (although not much is recognizable), I knew that ethnic identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages was a fairly interesting and current area of research. So I threw in some references to ethnic identity as a concept, based on what I could gather from source material that I had examined for other purposes. After the dissertation was finished, I intended to come back to the topic of ethnicity as I made a book emerge from the same research base. Well, I did, at least a little, hitting up a few volumes of the Transformation of the Roman World series. Then I wanted to write up what I had for the project as a whole and get it out for feedback. Somehow, the bits here and there on ethnic identity didn’t quite get built up, so I need to address the issue as I polish off the project.

I’ve done a bit more reading and thinking,[1] but none of it has really changed my mind on what my sources seem to indicate about how people in the eighth and ninth centuries thought about ethnic identity. Let me lay out my thoughts here and see what people think, if anything.

The classic work on the Spanish March is kind of old and tends to see the political dynamics of the Carolingian period as tension between pro-Frankish and pro-Gothic leanings. The case of Bera I, installed as count of Barcelona in 801, can serve as a case study. The areas of Septimania and the Spanish March (roughly modern Languedoc and Catalonia) were both once part of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain, which had its capital at Toledo. Septimania was north of the Pyrenees but was part of the kingdom of Toledo because the Visigoths had controlled the area since the fifth century. The Franks took over Septimania in the 750s and before 800 had annexed Girona and Urgell south of the Pyrenees.[2] In 801, a Frankish army led by Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious took Barcelona, and Bera became its count. Fast forward a bit… Having served as count for almost 20 years, Bera was accused of treason. There was a trial by combat, presided over by the emperor Louis, which Bera lost. Louis commuted his death sentence to exile, and so Bera spent the rest of days in Rouen, Normandy.[3] Traditionally, Bera is linked to the Visigothic culture and identity of the region, because his family had roots in Septimania, which is supposed to have made him a ‘natural’ choice to govern another formerly Visigothic area centered on Barcelona. And so some more modern folks have seen ethnic politics in Bera’s treason—his ‘pro-Visigothic’ political tendencies running up against the strong ‘pro-Frankish’ sensibilities of the emperor and his men. The current Wikipedia article on Bera makes something of a big deal about Visigoths doing this and Franks doing that. I don’t think so.

For one thing, Bera seems to have been one of the emperor’s men. Following the pattern of his neighbors in the western Pyrenees, areas that were only loosely connected with the old Visigothic kingdom before the Muslim conquest, any powerful marcher count in the 810s could have declared himself king of his territory and tried to back up his claim by fighting the Franks.  Since Bera did not do this, in part because the eastern Pyrenees were more strongly connected to Frankish dominion via roads, and in part because Bera himself came from Septimania, a region that did not really exhibit independence-minded, ‘pro-Visigothic’ political proclivities under decades Carolingian rule, any notion that Visigothic identity was the root of political activity in the Spanish March seems to be more an assumption on the part of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars. If anything, we should look at the motives of those who accused Bera of treason and brought about his downfall.

The Spanish and Gothic Marches of the Carolingians, from WIkimedia Commons

The Spanish and Gothic Marches of the Carolingians, from WIkimedia Commons

The prime mover seems to have been Gaucelm, son of William of Gellone. William was count of Toulouse and cousin of Charlemagne; he was a major player in the affairs of Aquitaine, Septimania and the Spanish March from the 790s to about 806, when he retired to the monastery he had founded.[4] Oh, I should mention here that most people today think that Bera was also a son of William’s, by his first wife, a lady named Khunegunde.[5] It seems that Bera acquired more territories over time, having already been “sub-count” (ruling for his father, William) of Razès and Conflent from about 790. He became count of Barcelona as noted, and then in the early 810s acquired Besalú and Girona when their count died.[6] Modern works suggest that Bera wanted to make peace with the Muslims nearby, and that he headed a pro-Visigothic faction in the Spanish March, against Gaucelm’s pro-Frankish, pro-war faction.[7] But it also seems that Gaucelm, who governed Rousillon and Empúries,[8] was losing out in terms of power and prestige in Septimania and the Spanish March, despite his exceptionally high birth and whatever other merits he possessed. To his half-brother, but that apparently was no consolation. Furthermore, the anonymous biographer of Louis the Pious known as “the Astronomer” named a man called Sanila as Bera’s accuser, pointing out that Sanila was a Goth.[9] One Goth accusing another Goth of treason against the Frankish emperor with whom the accused served and for whom he governed the city they took does not really spell politicized ethnicity. It seems to me, then, that instead of ethnic tension—Frankish Gaucelm vs. Visigothic Bera—what we have here is a case of aristocratic rivalries gone so far as to cost somebody his job and honor.

Basically, this case shows that identity or ethnic labels didn’t matter. I can’t find any evidence in narrative sources that anybody acted a certain way politically because of a perceived Gothicness or Frankishness. This is precisely the methodological approach advocated for in the big enterprise on early medieval ethnicity.[10] ‘Being a Goth’ or ‘being a Frank’ cannot be shown to have had any real meaning. Maybe the law codes were different, and people realized that. Maybe the languages were different, and people realized that. Maybe people understood that there were Franks, Goths, Bavarians, Lombards, and so on all within the kingdom, but didn’t care because such labels may have been ethnic—each denoting a ‘people’ with its own history that could be read or talked about—but not racial, by which I mean indicative of a difference that would cause discrimination or persecution. Where we can actually see unfavorable treatment, it is because of religion. I mean, look at Charlemagne’s court, and the scholars he attracted to it—Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Lombard, Visigothic/Hispanus. The Carolingians did not hold their cultures of origin against them. Some fairly recent and influential work on ethnic identities notes that Carolingians paid more attention to ethnic identity than others (also law and customs).[11] Einhard, for one, knew what it meant to dress like a Frank, the same way the Astronomer knew what it meant to dress like a Basque.[12] There was some value to dressing like one of the people one was ruling, not super-fancy, even though dress styles could vary within a group like “the Franks” according to class, status, or fashion.

The ‘ethnic’ labels seem to indicate more where people came from than ‘who they were’ as an identity. This is my current thinking about identity in the Carolingian period—that ethnic labels did not matter in terms of politics. There’s quite a bit of scholarship on the issue, so my project will have to address both ethnic identities and the work over the last 15 or so years on the issue, but this is what I think I’m going to say about it.


[1] Especially the essays included in Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of Ethnic Communities, 300-800, ed. Walter Pohl with Helmut Reimitz. The Transformation of the Roman World, 2. (Leiden, 1998).

[2] Chronicon Moissiacense, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz, (Hanover, 1826), 280-313 at 297; Roger Collins, Charlemagne (Toronto, 1998), 70.

[3] Annales Regni Francorum 741-829 qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, in MGH SSrG, 1, ed. G. Kurze (Hanover, 1895), 152.

[4] See for example Annales Laureshamenses, in MGH SS, 1, ed. G.H. Pertz (Hanover, 1826), 33. See also for the leadership of William Annales Alamannici, in MGH SS, 47; Chron. Moissac, 300.

[5] Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La família del primer comte barceloní, Berà,” Cuadernos de Arqueología e Histoira de la Cuidad 10 (1967): 187-193, argued that Bera was of Gothic heritage, the son of count Bello of Carcassonne, and governed Roussillon before the capture of Barcelona. Martin Aurell, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911),” in Regine Le Jan, ed. La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920)(Villaneuve d’Asq, 1998), 467-481, offers Khunegunde. The thinking is that Khunegunde was of Visigothic heritage, which some say helped Bera establish himself in power in Barcelona, where the inhabitants would have been Visigoths. But my point here is that it was more the Carolingian kings who used such ethnic labels, more just for show, because the ethnic label of a person did not matter much in politics.

[6] Josep M. Salrach, El procès de feudalització (Barcelona, 1987), 141-2.

[7] Ibid., 142-3.

[8] Ibid., 141. Salrach calls (pg. 142) Gaucelm count of “Empúries-Roselló” (Roselló is the Catalan spelling of French “Rousillon,” which version I use because the place is now part of France).

[9] Astronomer, Vita Hludowici imperatoris, in MGH SS, 2 (Hanover, 1829), 625. There are a couple of English translations; see note 12. Sanila has been called a friend and subordinate of Gauclem’s in Salrach, El procès de feudalització, 143.

[10] Peter Heather, “Disappearing and reappearing tribes,” in Strategies of Distinction, 95-111.

[11] Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity,” in Strategies of Distinction, 17-69 at45.

[12] Einhard, Vita Karoli, ch. 23; Astronomer, Vita Hludovici imperatoris, ch. 4. [Note that Pohl, as in note 7 above, mistakenly cites Thegan rather than Louis’s other biographer, the anonymous ‘Astronomer’.] These are translated into English in Thomas F. X. Noble, trans. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: the lives of Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).


7 comments on “Some Thoughts on Identity

  1. […] Count Bera of Barcelona was accused of treason. His trial and deposition in 820 were the subject of another post, so I won’t go over them here. The rest of the 820s was a bit tricky for the emperor, Louis the […]

  2. Two notions on this.
    1) I don’t think ‘ethnicity’ was not a socially active notion in carolingian times. It’s just that sources does not talk about it; social consensus hardly gets explicited. Take for example the ~860 ‘Translatio of Georgii…’ of Aimo of Saint-Germain des Prés, where a Leovigildus, also named Abadsolomes, a noble christian playing a role in Cordovese emirate is described as visigoth yet not arrian nor parricide.
    2) But those social consensus are noy monolythic nor stable in time. Several conceptions can be at play in at a given moment and context, yet another set half century later and/or hundred miles away.
    So, my take is that, yes, there were ‘ethnic’ considerations goin on then, it’s just that they are elusive and hard to detect and evaluate today.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. It is worth thinking about, but for discussion’s sake, I note that the sources that mention ethnicity are not local to the Spanish March. It was important for the Franks to note differences. There is no source I know of that makes such a big deal of them on the local level. Now, that does not mean that people were not concerned with it, but it does mean that we can’t demonstrate that they were. As you say, the concerns, if any, are elusive and hard to detect. Such is the nature of the source material in limiting our conclusions.

    • Yes, I am with you on that, the lack of local sources is frustrating, we have to operate with indirect evidence; and yes, there’s no signal of ‘gothic’ vs ‘frankish’ divide (whatever we choose to mean those labels) nor ‘christian’ vs ‘muslim’ either. But some few external available evidences can be used; I am thinking for example on the description of Guillem the son of Bernat of Septimania in the muslim sources as a head of a ‘umma’ (community) and his sudden and blodless take of Barcelona and Empuries. Or the role of the jews, hardly noticed in local or frankish sources, but more openly exposed in arabic and jewish ones, witch is an even more ideologically distorted topìc. Or those ‘hispans’, so locally called even in sub Pirinean Gothia, situated somewhere between local nobility and the king’s court. Those slight indications makes me think that we are witnessing just a few remainings of what it was a complex social setup. Ethnicity was probably just another ingredient of the recipe, let’s say an spice, the problem, is just that we are not even able to say what are we cooking: fish or meat?! 🙂

      • This is very interesting. What are the Muslim sources that mention Guillem? I’m afraid I don’t know that material as well as I probably should, concentrating as I have on the Frankish point of view.

  4. It’s Ibn Hayyan, ‘al-Muqtabis’. I am citing from: Bramon i Planes, Dolors : 2000 : “De quan érem o no musulmans. Textos del 713 al 1010”, entry #248, and #250.

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