Sunday, November 2, 2014


Andreas Fischer, Ian Wood (ed.), Western Perspectives on the Mediterranean: Cultural Transfer in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 400-800 AD. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 200. ISBN 9781780930275. $110.00.

Reviewed by Gregory Halfond, Framingham State University (

Version at BMCR home site


It is not unusual for reviewers of published conference proceedings to note the contents' variable quality and lack of unifying vision. Although slim in size, Fischer and Wood's Western Perspectives on the Mediterranean exhibits neither of these unfortunate, but all too common, tendencies. Originating as papers delivered at Harvard University in 2010, the six uniformly strong essays contained herein all explore manifestations of cultural transfer in the Mediterranean world during Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Although influenced in part by the work of one of the conference's participants, Michael McCormick, who demonstrated the frequency and dynamism of Mediterranean communications in the post-Roman era in his Origins of the European Economy, the essays collected here focus less on socio-economic exchange than on cultural.1 As defined by Fischer in his substantial introductory essay, the theoretical model of cultural transfer assumes that in the course of communications cultural elements frequently are "modified or partially or wholly changed, according to the recipient's horizon in order to enable their integration into a new cultural setting" (xv). Fischer offers as an example the sixth-century Sasanian cup of Chosroes I, which very well may have been given as a diplomatic gift by Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne. By the time the cup had arrived in Francia, however, it had shed its Sasanian identity and was identified as a Hebraic relic from the Kingdom of Solomon. Precisely who was responsible for this false attribution is uncertain, and Fischer observes that both the Abbasids and the Carolingians had very good reasons for preferring to associate the cup with the court of an Israelite king.

Unlike Fischer's introduction, the majority of essays do not focus on surviving tangible examples of material culture but rather cultural transfers described and/or facilitated by written sources. Ian Wood's essay deftly explores the political and cultural significance of the title magister militum claimed by the Gibichung rulers of the Burgundian Kingdom, which Wood describes as a "Late Roman province run by Late Roman officials" (15). But as Wood shows, the Gibichungs' embrace of romanitas did not ensure that communications between Gaul and Constantinople were simple and straightforward. He hypothesizes Byzantine dissembling for Bishop Avitus of Vienne's confusion regarding imperial orthodoxy during the Trishagion crisis. He also suggests that Sigismund's dedication of the monastery of Agaune may have been motivated in part by a false belief that the dedicatee's cult originated in the east. Frankish expansion, however, violently severed the provincial outpost from the rest of the empire, forcing the imperial government to acknowledge Frankish dominance in Southern Gaul.

Stefan Esders offers what is arguably the collection's most original contribution. Starting with Michael McCormick's premise that the movement of saints cults and relics can demonstrate east-west communications, Esders explores the mysterious arrival of the cult of Saint Polyeuctus, the punisher of perjurers, in Merovingian Gaul. The saint had been named, according to Gregory of Tours, as a defender of the treaty between the sons of Chlothar I. Esders persuasively argues that one of these sons, Sigibert I, was the impetus for this reference to an obscure eastern saint, and also was the founder of Polyeuctus' church in Metz. Esders associates the arrival of the Polyeuctus cult in Gaul with Sigibert's facilitation of the transfer of the relic of the True Cross to Poitiers ca. AD 568. Both transfers took place within the context of diplomatic gestures between Sigibert and the emperor Justin II.2 Esders wryly concludes that the reason for the subsequent decline of the Gallic branch of the Polyeuctus' cult may have been the saint's zealousness in "killing too many perjured kings" (40).

The next two essays delineate the Mediterranean perspectives of several early medieval historical works. Helmut Reimitz compares the Gothic histories of Cassiodorus, Jordanes, and Isidore of Seville. Whereas Cassiodorus' aim was the amalgamation of Gothic and Roman history, Jordanes positioned "himself between the Gothic past of Cassiodorus and different hopes or suggestions for a Gothic or post-Gothic future of the Italian regnum" (47). Isidore too prioritized integration, seeing Catholic Christianity as the chief instrument for its success in Visigothic Iberia. Reimitz demonstrates significant parallels between Isidore's historiographical agenda with his conciliar program at the Fourth Council of Toledo (633).

Andreas Fischer, in turn, examines the seventh-century chronicler known as Fredegar, whose "chain of chronicles"3 both drew from and expanded upon the late antique historiographical tradition. Fischer echoes recent scholarship on Fredegar in arguing that the chronicler engaged in réécriture in his use of sources, thus giving them new meaning, and ultimately produced an original work rather than a patchwork history. Drawing upon information from throughout the wider Mediterranean, Fredegar fashioned (mostly implicit) parallels between individuals, events, and historical phenomena. Fischer cites on several occasions, for example, Stefan Esder's important work on the eschatological analogies drawn between Dagobert I and the emperor Heraclius in Book IV of the Chronicle.4 Fischer concludes his essay with a mostly hypothetical (by his own admission) reconstruction of a possible cultural transfer of information to Fredegar facilitated by the Abbot Hadrian in 668.

Thomas Noble's important essay scrutinizes the so-called "eastern popes" of the seventh and eighth centuries, concluding that this standard descriptive label ultimately is unhelpful and misleading. Although twelve out of nineteen popes who held their seats between AD 642 and 752 were either Sicilian, Syrian, or Greek, Noble demonstrates that "it was not necessarily the case that the so-called Eastern popes were somehow sympathetic to or supportive of Greek rule" (77). He identifies no less than sixteen cases of popes (including easterners) being intimidated by imperial officials, and conversely the recurrent inability of the imperial government and its officials to dictate policy to the papacy. Furthermore, Noble argues persuasively that local, not imperial, politics played the greater role in determining the outcome of papal elections in this period, and that those easterners elected were thoroughly acculturated into the Roman church. Thus, he is able to conclude that in post-Ostrogothic Italy "Byzantine rule was, quite simply, as unwanted as it was ineffective" (80-81).

The volume concludes with a final essay examining the Mediterranean focus of an early medieval historical text, Sören Kaschke's analysis of Bede's Chronica Maiora. A world chronicle written for the monks of Jarrow, its goal was to "harmonize chronology with computus" (90). Kaschke observes that Bede was not strictly annalistic in his chronicle, but rather emphasized particular themes or personal interests: i.e. the six ages of the world and their length; computus; barbarian peoples; heresies; and the papacy and Rome. Bede inherently stressed, via Mediterranean exempla, history's inherent unpredictability and the consequential need for remaining steadfast in one's faith and orthodoxy. Although Kaschke's focus here is strictly on the Chronica Maiora, more extensive comparisons with Bede's other historical and exegetical writings might have been instructive.

Collectively, these six essays reveal vividly that the communication routes of the early medieval Mediterranean carried not only commodities, objects of devotion, and travelers themselves, but intangible cultural products as well. While the impact of various objects of cultural transfer could vary significantly, their adoption reveals how the peoples of the early medieval west still recognized themselves as constituents of a wider Mediterranean world.


1.   Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). McCormick's conference paper is not included in the volume, but the larger project on which it was based has been published as Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land: Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2011).
2.   As I have attempted to show elsewhere, Sigibert's choices in his ecclesiastical patronage were informed, to a considerable degree, by his politico-military agenda: Gregory Halfond, "Negotiating Episcopal Support in the Merovingian Kingdom of Rheims," Early Medieval Europe 22, no. 1 (2014): pp. 1-25. I must admit to neglecting the significance of the Polyeuctus cult.
3.   The phrase, which Fischer employs, comes from Ian Wood, "Chains of Chronicles: The Example of London, British Library ms. Add. 16974," in Zwischen Niederschrift und Wiederschrift, edd. Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger, and Meta Niederkorn-Bruck (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010), pp. 67-75.
4.   Stefan Esders, "Herakleios, Dagobert und die 'beschnittenen Völker,'" in Jenseits der Grenzen, edd. Andreas Goltz, Hartmut Leppin, and Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 239-311.

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