Fazioli on Buchberger, 'Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700: From Romans to Goths and Franks'

Erica Buchberger
K. Patrick Fazioli

Erica Buchberger. Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700: From Romans to Goths and Franks. Late Antique and Early Medieval Iberia Series. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017. 218 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-8964-880-8.

Reviewed by K. Patrick Fazioli (Mercy College) Published on H-Medieval (August, 2018) Commissioned by Irene Jacobs

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52655

Over the past several decades, few topics in early medieval history have attracted as much attention, or courted as much controversy, as the role of ethnic identity in the transition from the late Roman world to the early Middle Ages. One key disagreement has been over the relative merits of the “ethnogenesis” model, which views ethnicity as a (if not the) driving force in the dissolution of the Western Empire into a patchwork of “barbarian” kingdoms. This framework continues to be widely embraced by both historians and archaeologists in spite of a growing number of theoretical, methodological, and historiographical critiques.[1] Although these debates sometimes feel like they generate more heat than light, the issue of how Romanized populations reimagined their collective identities during an era of political instability, economic reorganization, and massive demographic shifts remains both a fascinating and frustrating area of inquiry.  

In Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700: From Romans to Goths and Franks, Erica Buchberger approaches early medieval ethnicity from a comparative perspective, analyzing a range of primary texts from Visigothic Spain and Merovingian Gaul. Her introductory chapter begins by tracing the historiographical debates around this complicated and contentious issue, with the author championing the “new Vienna methodology” that accepts ethnicity as a viable topic of historical investigation while rejecting the controversial Traditionskern model that informed the first generation of ethnogenesis research. Part 1 (chapters 1-3) focuses on early medieval Iberia, where Visigothic kings consolidated their political power by the end of the sixth century but faced the challenge of unifying an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous population. Primary sources covered in these chapters include John of Biclar’s Chronicle, Isidore of Seville’s History of the Goths, The Lives of the Fathers of Mérida, and a variety of church councils and law codes. Part 2 (chapters 4-7) turns our attention to Gaul, where Merovingian kings also sought to bring an array of ethnic groups under their political hegemony. In this section, Buchberger examines how ethnonyms were employed by Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus, the Chronicle of Fredegar, and a selection of hagiographical works. Her conclusion synthesizes the findings of the two case studies and draws larger implications about the nature and function of ethnic identity in post-Roman western Europe.

The success of Buchberger’s approach will be evaluated here based on two criteria: does it offer a compelling explanatory framework for how ethnicity functioned in early medieval societies, and does it articulate an effective historical method for bridging the epistemological gap between written accounts and past social dynamics? The latter question is particularly salient for early medieval sources, which were deeply shaped by their authors’ political agendas, narrative goals, and sociocultural milieux. The solution, according to Buchberger, is to pay close attention to broader sociopolitical contexts as well as the rhetorical choices made by each author, which allow us to “see beyond the authors themselves to the shifting meanings of these identities within their societies and the ways they and their contemporaries drew on these to negotiate their place within a world that was rapidly changing” (p. 24).

So what novel insights does this critical textual analysis bring? For early medieval Gaul, Buchberger applies this method to explain why near-contemporaneous sources were often inconsistent in their use of ethnic terms. For example, why did Gregory of Tours rarely employ ethnic descriptors in his writing, preferring to identify individuals by family, city of origin, or social rank, while the Fredegar Chronicle is replete with familiar terms like Frank, Roman, Saxon, and Briton? While this has been interpreted as signaling a change in the importance of ethnic identity at the turn of the seventh century, Buchberger points out that Gregory was likely writing for his immediate social circle, so he emphasized aspects of identity that would have been most meaningful to this local audience, while Fredegar’s narrative goal was to offer a vision of an ethnically diverse society united under a single political identity. Not coincidentally, the idea that individuals could retain their primary, regional ethnic identities while also embracing a sense of “Frankishness” was crucial to the political ideology of the Merovingian kings, who were never able to achieve the same centralized political power as their Gothic counterparts.   

A second example from Visigothic Spain further illustrates how the sources could serve as political propaganda. According to Isidore and John of Biclar, a strict ethno-religious division between Arian Goths and Catholic Hispano-Romans existed before King Reccared’s conversion in 587. Buchberger argues that not only was social reality far more complex (citing several examples of Catholics of Gothic ancestry), but also such oversimplifications in the texts were deliberate attempts to craft an origin story for a newly unified Visigothic community. After Reccared’s conversion, religious and ethnic boundaries were dissolved, allowing Goths to become Catholic and Hispano-Romans to embrace a Gothic identity. One strength of Buchberger’s method is its ability to unpack the dynamic relationship between past sociopolitical realities and the historical narratives that “sought to imply a unity that was not necessarily true in the hope of helping to make it true” (p. 62).

Buchberger’s theoretical approach to ethnicity is first laid out in the introduction, where she characterizes it as multifaceted, fluid, and composite—a way of “imagining and organizing the world, as well as the discourse that gives meaning to it” (p. 21). She also asserts that individuals can play up different dimensions of their social identity depending on the context, citing early medieval figures like Claudius, duke of Lusitania, and Romulf, bishop of Reims, both of whom strategically kept one foot in the Roman world and another in the barbarian. Buchberger notes that these examples reveal “multiple layers of identity—two different criteria of distinction which could exist together and be activated according to context and circumstance” (p. 65).       

Although few will find anything particularly objectionable in Buchberger’s account of ethnic identity, she never truly adopts a robust theoretical framework to test against the historical evidence. For a book that takes ethnicity as its core issue, there is surprisingly little discussion of longstanding sociological debates over the nature and function of this concept. While she never endorses (or even mentions) any of the well-established theories of ethnic conflict, her case studies reveal a preference for instrumentalism, a perspective that views ethnicity as a tool elites use to advance political or economic goals by fostering a common purpose and identity within a defined social group. For proponents of this view, ethnicity does not derive from deep biological or cultural affinities but always serves another (covert) purpose.[2] And while Buchberger presents some compelling evidence that ethnicity did function in precisely this manner in early medieval Spain and Gaul, she never explores the (quite radical) implications of this interpretation, nor does she consider potential drawbacks or critiques of an instrumentalist approach.

Similar concerns might be raised with her contention that early medieval individuals could intentionally “switch” between different ethnic identities. This strategy may have been available to politically powerful, high-status individuals like Claudius and Romulf, but what about the rest of the population? Indeed, this gestures toward a more fundamental limitation of the written sources, which give us almost no sense of how ethnic identity functioned outside of a small circle of elites. Perhaps instrumentalism is appealing to the early medieval historian because the machinations of the political elite are conspicuous in her dataset. In contrast, archaeologists have shown ethnicity can look quite different when examined from the perspective of everyday life, skilled practice, and material culture.[3]

Despite these shortcomings, Buchberger has made a valuable contribution to the historical scholarship on early medieval ethnicity. She writes in a lucid and accessible style that is student friendly, and despite the relatively brief length of the monograph, it gives us much to reflect upon. If nothing else, her book is a reminder that despite all the ink that has been spilled on the role of ethnicity in the birth of the Middle Ages, there is still much work to be done.


[1]. For examples of the ethnogenesis model, see Walter Pohl and Helmut Reimitz, eds., Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300-800 (Leiden: Brill, 1998); and for a discussion and critique of this model, see Andrew Gillett, ed., On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002).  

[2]. See Marcus Banks, Ethnicity: Anthropological Constructions (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[3]. See Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology,” Early Medieval Europe 15, no. 2 (2007): 159-185; and K. Patrick Fazioli, “Rethinking Ethnicity in Early Medieval Archaeology: Social Identity, Technological Choice, and Communities of Practice,” in From West to East: Current Approaches to Medieval Archaeology, ed. Scott Stull (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014), 21-41. 

Citation: K. Patrick Fazioli. Review of Buchberger, Erica, Shifting Ethnic Identities in Spain and Gaul, 500-700: From Romans to Goths and Franks. H-Medieval, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52655

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