The end of the Western Roman Empire is still very often attributed to the surging waves of lawless warriors, the Barbarians. The publication in the "Que sais-je" collection of a work devoted to the birth of the barbarian kingdoms can help to see more clearly.
In this short but dense book, the authors seek both to take stock of knowledge about the barbarians, and to challenge conventional wisdom. To do this, they built their study thematically and chronologically, first asking the question of what we know about the barbarians before their first contact with the Empire, then its relationship with its neighbors. Then came the beginnings of the difficulties with the establishment of the Barbarians within the Empire, their gradual independence, whether violent or not, and in the context of a growing weakening of Rome.
Then, the authors approach the barbarian culture in this 5th century of transition, to open on the construction of these “barbarian kingdoms of the West” which are gradually moving away from the imperial influence (now only in Constantinople), far from the only one. violent rupture which we still think too often today (vision partly due to Roman literary sources, according to B. Dumézil and M. Coumert). These kingdoms would have been for some directly influenced by Rome, seen by contemporaries (except historians) as "continuators", others less structured mixing Roman law and "barbarous" customs. The last chapter, also essential, is devoted to the "conversion of the barbarian kingdoms", conversion to Christianity obviously.
B. Coumert concluded by asserting that there was a real political evolution with the arrival of the Barbarians in contact with Rome, with loyalty shifting from the state to the king. But at the social and cultural level, "the contribution of the barbarians" seems less: if the warrior partly takes precedence over the civil servant or the scholar, wealth is still based on land ownership; the arrival of "barbarian" languages allows a diversification of Latin and linguistics in general, but on the contrary reserves knowledge to elites who only know sustained Latin. Strongly "clericalized" elites, which places the conversion to Christianity as, in the opinion of the authors, the "major transformation" of this period. It is no longer Romanity that binds kingdoms and their populations together, but belonging to the same religion.
This work therefore wants to show that, contrary to what we still hear today, whether in schools or in books with a large circulation, there was no "fall of Rome" in contact with the world. 'violent arrival of barbarian hordes, but a gradual transformation of the Roman world in contact with these barbarians (and vice versa) and the "creation of new ethnic identities" at the base of "new peoples" whose common points could be loyalty to a king and Christianity.
A very interesting "Que sais-je" therefore, that any enthusiast of this period so little known and yet decisive must have. We recommend reading it in conjunction with the sublime catalog of the exhibition at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, in 2008, "Rome and the Barbarians: the birth of a new world", in which Bruno Dumézil participated.
Bruno Dumézil is a young researcher, lecturer in medieval history at the University of Paris Ouest-Nanterre, specialist in the High Middle Ages; we owe him “La Reine Brunehaut” (Fayard, 2008) and the recent “Les Barbares explained à mon fils” (Seuil, 2010).
Magali Coumert is a lecturer at the University of Western Brittany (Brest); she also a specialist in the High Middle Ages and author of "The Origin of Peoples. The stories of the Western Middle Ages (550-850) ”(IEA, 2007).
B. DUMEZIL, M. COUMERT, Barbarian kingdoms in the West, PUF (coll. “Que sais-je?”), Paris, 2010, 128 p.