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Guy Halsall (born 1964) is an English historian who specializes in Early Medieval Europe.
Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376–568 (2007)
- In the reinterpretation of ‘Germanic’ archaeology I have benefited from discussions with, and the encouragement of fellow-subversives... vive la re´volution!
- p. xv
- One of the problems that has most beset the study of early medieval Europe is, as noted, that of Germanism. This book aims to tackle this issue... To lump all Germanic-speaking tribes together is simply to repeat the assumptions of Roman ethnographers or the politically contingent Germanist interpretations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is, furthermore, the danger of assuming a linkage between Germanic-speaking barbarians of antiquity and the Germans of modern Europe. This was an approach adopted equally by nineteenth-century historians working in the context of German unification, by the Nazis and at the same time, polemically, by their enemies... [T]here are many occasions where modern historians and, especially, archaeologists, treat the different Germanic-speaking groups as sharing some sort of unifying ethos... It is implicit in such interpretations that all ‘Germanic’ peoples somehow share a common mentality. In their minds is a common stock of cultural traits which all ‘Germanic’ people can draw upon as and when they see fit. This may be claimed to be a reductio ad absurdam of traditional assumptions. It is, but only because these assumptions are fundamentally absurd.
- pp. 22-23
- The problems of Germanism have long been recognised. Alas, entirely analogous developments are currently taking place, also in the course of modern political movements, with the ‘Celts’. It is presently more fashionable and acceptable to talk of the ‘Celtic’ peoples as sharing a unified culture so that evidence from one area (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall or Brittany) can be transferred unproblematically to the elucidation of another, sometimes regardless of chronological context. This is no more acceptable than Germanism.
- p. 24
- There can be no question of a general overriding ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ identity amongst the different barbarian groups. Shared language might have facilitated communication and alliance but there is no evidence for or reason to suppose a higher level of ethnic identity on this basis.
- p. 58
Why Do We Need Barbarians? (2011)
- Historians are not immune from similarly bizarre reasoning, of course. The counter-revisionist offensive against more subtle ways of thinking about the fifth century has been led by British historians from Oxford. Peter Heather has repeatedly deployed the notion that, because wagons, women and children are occasionally mentioned in sources concerning the barbarians, the barbarians must have been ‘peoples’ on the move... Such are the weakness and double-standards of the arguments in favour of the traditional narrative. You can list many more.
The Oxford Companion To Archaeology (2011)
- The Nazis adopted these ideas with gusto but they did not invent them. Nor have post-Nazi archaeologists entirely abandoned some of their foundational notions. The idea of a really existing Germanic culture, unifying enormously diverse and disparate peoples living between the North Sea and the Ukraine and between the Danube and Scandinavia, has, in spite of its clearly contingent roots in early modern and modern political history, refused to go away. It has, however, now been turned around yet again, by misrepresenting ancient history as a binary opposition between civilized Romans and Germanic barbarians, to support modern xenophobic and anti-immigration policies.
- p. 606
- [I'm] (probably) the most significant historian of early medieval Europe under the age of 60 anywhere in the world... [T]hat's not (just) me being cocky, but a pretty sober assessment of the range and quality of my work.
Two Worlds Become One (2014)
- Recently, something of an academic counter-revolution... has taken place. Oxford-trained historians have led the way, publishing books repeating the same argument: the barbarian migrations involved real ‘peoples on the move’, which brought down the Roman Empire. This has stimulated traditionalist archaeologists into a backlash against more nuanced interpretations of the material record. Whatever their authors’ politics (though these can be guessed at from their writings and publishing choices) there can be no doubt that these works have—in the most generous interpretation—been written sufficiently carelessly as to provide succour to far-right extremists. What is more, the barbarian migrations have become a popular metaphor among racists and other opponents of modern migration... The Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik’s preferred historical model was the Crusades but it is nevertheless significant that he described the killings as ‘a small barbarian act to prevent a larger barbarian act’,17 the latter being the supposed take-over of Europe by Muslim immigrants.
- pp. 517-518
- The recent use of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methodologies to examine migration has added an extra, alarming dimension. DNA, whether ‘ancient’ (from excavated material) or ‘modern’ samples (from living populations), is being used to track migration. The danger, barely addressed (at best dismissed as a purely ‘ideological’ objection), is of reducing ethnicity to biology and thus to something close to the nineteenth- century idea of race, at the basis of the ‘nation state’.
- pp. 518-519
- [T]he writing of history is inescapably political, my aim is partly to provide a basis for a more politically and ethically responsible intervention by historians in modern political debate about migration.
- p. 519
- The first part of the essay calls into question the idea that the Germanic-speaking barbarians shared any sort of unifying ethos or culture that would allow us to conceive of them as a single entity. This section largely summarizes a particular direction in recent work, but the conclusion is still far from generally accepted or integrated in current study and so requires restating... The comprehensive rejection of the idea of a unifying Germanic ethos and identity among pre-migratory Germani removes the classic basis for nineteenth-century views of the German people as rooted in distant history... One inheritance of nineteenth-century (and earlier) notions of pan-Germanic culture is the unlikely notion that all Germani had access to a common range of cultural traits, upon which they could draw at will... Attempts to change this intellectually careless state of affairs are making only slow process.
- pp. 519-521
- I twitch every time anyone mentions ‘Germanic’ culture.