18 November 2018

Völkerwanderung, agriculture and civilisational crisis

Peter Heather’s book on The Goths was a fascinating read, though Heather himself seemed to be positioning his thesis in between two extremes of archæological and historiographical interpretation – that is to say, between the advocates of historical discontinuity and the advocates of continuity; or between the advocates of a migration-favourable historiography and those that favour stable populations. Heather has been touted as a kind of ‘rehabilitator of the Völkerwanderung’, but at least in the present book he is a fairly moderate one, and he does acknowledge and endorse to a certain extent the warnings of the migration-sceptics about reading too much movement of peoples into the archæological record. The book is a thorough education in a subject I had hitherto known little about: to wit, the Gothic ethnogenesis among the Wielbark and Chernyakhov cultures, and the establishment of the Gothic kingdoms in Italy and Spain. On the other hand, there were some treatments of the subject of the Teutonic migrations and the fall of the Western Roman Empire that should make for some discomfiting reading in our current political climate.

For one thing, pretty much all of the policy ‘solutions’ to the current immigration ‘problem’ that America seems to be facing were tried by the Roman Empire in the crises of the third through fifth centuries, and none of them seems to have worked particularly well. The Teutonic leadership brought in to serve as fœderati were not particularly keen on being assimilated; a ‘path’ to Roman citizenship through military service does not seem to have served as a particularly strong enticement in the end. And Heather notes that the Romans did build border walls to keep out barbarians, particularly after the first noticeable ‘trickles’ of the Teutonic Völkerwanderung in the third century; however, these walls were not particularly effective against either the movement of Germanic peoples within the Roman borders, or against the Huns (some of which walls the Goths themselves erected in their wake) when they arrived from regions eastward. The historical record does not appear to look kindly on those who endorse a one-size-fits-all solution; indeed, taken holistically, it appears to stand witness against both our political ‘sides’ on this question.

But though the Roman experience of the Völkerwanderung may seem somewhat relevant to the ‘immigration’ debate (like all analogies, there are some hard-and-fast limits to this one as well), there are also issues which are much more dire underlying it. Though (again) Heather stresses against popular readings of mass migrations as sudden or occurring in ‘waves’, he nonetheless does posit that a migration of people occurred in the third century from the northern reaches of Poland toward the shores of the Black Sea and the marches of the Eastern Roman Empire. Further, he indicates an agricultural crisis and population crisis as two of the factors coinciding with the gradual movement of people south and east:
Between the birth of Christ and the late Roman period, agricultural practice was transformed throughout central and northern Europe. At the start of the period, an extensive agriculture, of generally low productivity, prevailed across much of northern and central Europe. Based on the so-called ‘Celtic field’ system, it alternated short periods of cultivation with long periods of fallow. Little other effort was made to maintain the fertility of cultivated fields. For this reason, it was marked by dispersed, short-lived settlements. The regime was neither productive enough to generate dense settlement patterns, nor capable of maintaining crop yields in any particular area for an extended period … Ploughing took the form of narrow, criss-crossed scrapings, and the addition of ash – perhaps reflecting a slash-and-burn agriculture – the only form of fertilisation … Studies of so-called ‘micro-regions’ have suggested, consonant with this, that family groups would occupy a given area for between only two and three generations.

By the late Roman period, much more intensive agricultural regimes had evolved. The inhabitants of these villages practised mixed farming, part arable, part pastoral. The fact that they occupied the same site for several centuries shows that their inhabitants had developed new techniques for maintaining the fertility of their arable fields. In particular, they were to some extent integrating arable and pastoral production, using manure from their animals, together, probably, with some kind of two-crop rotation to maintain yields. These changes represent a revolution in agricultural productivity. It is now broadly accepted that these changes were associated with a substantial and general increase in population. Another broad indication of the same thing has been provided by pollen diagrams. Between the birth of Christ and the year 500, cereal pollens reached unprecedentedly high percentage values, at the expense of grass pollens, in wide areas of what is now the territory of Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Heather notes further that the carrying capacity of the soil in those parts of what is now northern Poland settled by the Wielbark culture simply was not particularly amenable to this new kind of exploitation (or to the subsequent increase in population), while the lands south and east of the Carpathian Mountains were much better-suited. This, in combination with the fact that the warlike East Germanic peoples found the pickings from raids on richer peoples closer to the Roman border to be better, seems to have been the trigger for the first ‘trickles’ of Gothic peoples into the Balkans and onto the Roman march. Both positive inducements and negative environmental constraints seem to have driven the Goths in their first ‘wandering’, from northern Poland to the Balkans.

This analysis should set off some rather loud klaxons in the present. Even a series of relatively small interlinked technological changes in agricultural practice seems to be linked to one of the most politically-potent mass migrations in Western history. Now, we have a system of global monoculture, driven largely by the imperatives of multinational corporations and high finance, ridiculously dependent on fossil fuels to maintain its output, and it is manifestly maintaining its yields at the expense of the biosphere to the point where we already seem to be rendering some areas of the world markedly less hospitable to human agriculture and even habitation. The current technological fossil fuel and Green Revolution-driven change to the biosphere makes what the historical agricultural revolution did in central Europe look like child’s play, and we can already see how climate change is driving migration in the present. Given these indications, the fall of the Imperium Americanum looks likely to be more spectacular than that of the Imperium Romanum Occidentalis, and neither walls nor technocratic fixes nor broader citizenship are likely to stave it off.

Speaking honestly (there is a lot to unpack here, and I don’t plan to do it all here in one blog post) I don’t see anything short of an agricultural counter-revolution or alter-revolution being able to stem or blunt that fall. The shape of that agricultural counter-revolution is being indicated largely by Via Campesina, the New Rural Reconstruction and the Russian dacha movement. I don’t think it is an accident, either, that agrarian, peasant societies themselves are articulating this counter- or alter-revolutionary resistance to the dominance of monoculture, technological dependence and dependence on fossil fuels. At the same time, they are not doing so through bourgeois theories like distributism; in general, they appear to be accommodating pragmatically to existing political structures while building up alternative institutions for themselves at the local level. The direction indicated by these disparate movements is indeed more similar to the political projects of Gar Alperovitz or Jaroslav Vaněk.

Even though, as Peter Heather tells it, the Goths themselves were either destroyed by Byzantine military might and cunning, or else adapted themselves to an Iberian-Roman latifundia system that ended up subsuming their identity, that wasn’t the only possible response to the crisis. Others among the Teutonic peoples of the Völkerwanderungthe Alamanni in particular, but also the Franks, the Saxons and the Angles – began to build precisely these kinds of socialistic communal ownership schemes and common-pool systems for themselves (notably, the ‘open field system’); and they built them largely in response to the same œconomic pressures and agricultural innovations that exerted themselves among the Goths. But lest we be overly encouraged by the example of the early Germans, we need to be mindful that these institutional innovations were a response to a crisis. It seems others in the ‘crunchy’ counter-cultural conservative blogosphere have been thinking in the same direction. We human beings have enough inertia in our habits that we generally don’t reach for these sorts of alternatives, unless we are forced to by circumstances outside our control. This time, though, we really can’t afford to let our inertia get the better of us; and it strikes me that we need to marshal and direct the counter-cultural impulses from a broad range of political philosophies to overcome it.


  1. You might also like "The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples" by Herwig Wolfram if you haven't read it yet.

  2. I do have some Herwig Wolfram on my to-read list; I'll be sure to check out that book of his as well!