Land, freedom and the making of the medieval West

Land, freedom and the making of the medieval West

By Matthew Innes

Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.16 (2006)

Abstract:  In the course of the fifth and sixth centuries, barbarian warbands acquired property rights in the former provinces of the Roman west, in a process that established the broad structural characteristics of early medieval society in western Europe: that is the central contention of this essay. Focusing on the western Mediterranean heartlands of the Imperial government and senatorial aristocracy, it argues that these property transfers were fundamental to the emergence of ethnic identity as the crucial political marker in the post-Roman west. Latent conflict over the respective rights and obligations of barbarian ‘guests’ and their provincial ‘hosts’ structured the first attempts at post-Roman state-formation in the west, for the nature of the ‘hospitality’ offered to barbarian warbands accommodated within the Empire became a matter of contention as second and third generation ‘guests’ continued to enjoy the fruits of the property of their ‘hosts’.

Interpreting these new social relationships in the light of established legal forms, barbarian kings identified agreed mechanisms for the legitimate transfer of Roman property to their followers: this process allowed Roman landowners to seek remedies for illegitimate or violent seizure, but at the price of acknowledging a significant redistribution of land to a new class of barbarian soldiers whose liberty was rooted in their military service. The result was the emergence, by the seventh century, of regionalised and militarised elites who appropriated the language of ethnicity to legitimate their position.

Around the year 510, a funerary inscription was raised in the church of St Just in the city of Lyon. It commemorated a man named Sarwa Gastimodus, who had died at the age of forty. Sarwa Gastimodus’s name, it told its readers, truly summed up the merits of his life. That this epitaph apparently required no further explanation to its contemporary audience is striking, for it turned on the literal meaning of Sarwa and Gastimodus, both words with Germanic roots. Sarwa denoted weaponry and here signified martial valour, whilst Gastimodus Latinised the Germanic noun for ‘guest’. So here we have an inhabitant of Lyon, named in Germanic with a hint of bastardised Latin ‘Hard Man our Guest’, commemorated in a resolutely Roman form in a Catholic church, but to an audience who were familiar enough with Germanic names to understand.

Click here to read this article from Birkbeck College

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine