The wandering of peoples

Map from Europe: A History, p.216.
Map of first millennium migrations into Europe. From Europe: A History, p.216.

Norman Davies, in his book Europe: A History (see previous post), describes the waves of migration that transformed Europe during the first millennium AD.

One of Davies’ chief aims throughout his history of Europe is to correct the tendency to view history, especially European history, from an exclusively western European perspective. As he observes, this tendency has strongly influenced our view of “the Barbarian Invasions” during the twilight of the western Roman empire (or “the Roman empire”, as we’ve tended to call it in the west, ignoring the fact it continued for another millennium in the east).

In fact, the influx of Angles, Saxons, Franks, Jutes, Visigoths, Huns and the rest was:

[a] massive historical process which, from the standpoint of the Empire, has been called ‘the Barbarian Invasions’ and which, from the parochial standpoint of Western Europe, has often been reduced to ‘the Germanic Invasions’. To the Germans it is known as the Völkerwanderung, the ‘Wandering of Peoples’—an apt term which could well be applied to its Germanic and non-Germanic participants alike. In reality, it engulfed the greater part of the European Peninsula, East and West, and continued throughout the first millennium AD and beyond, until all the wanderers had found a permanent abode. (pp.217f.)

The waves of migration proceeded in a ripple effect, with the ultimate impetus for a westward movement often lying far away to the east:

The critical cause of any displacement might lie far away on the steppes of central Asia; and a ‘shunting effect’ is clearly observable. Changes at one end of the chain of peoples could set off ripples along all the links of the chain. Like the last wagon of a train in the shunting yards, the last tribe on the western end of the chain could be propelled from its resting-place with great force. (p.215)

Hence “the Huns caused ripples in the West long before they themselves appeared.” The Huns had been based in modern Turkestan, east of the Caspian Sea, but gradually shifted west. In turn they pushed the Ostrogoths and Visigoths into the Roman empire.

The causes of individual bursts of migration sound familiar to modern ears, as does the nervous reaction of “civilised” Europe:

The irregular rhythms of migration depended on a complex equation involving climatic changes, food supply, demographic growth, local rivalries, distant crises. For the Romans watching anxiously on the frontier, they were entirely unpredictable. (p.215)

Which brings us to today, and how to deal with what is variously referred to as a “migrant crisis” or a “refugee crisis” – mostly depending on how sympathetic the speaker is to the plight of those (literally) washing up on Europe’s beaches from the Middle East and north Africa.

Many will point out, quite correctly, that there is a difference between a “refugee” fleeing persecution, a “migrant” seeking better economic conditions, and an “immigrant” coming for a particular job or course of study. It is certainly possible to look at any individual, ask which of those categories they fall under, and have differing policies for each.

However, if we are (as seems likely) in a new era of “great migrations”, driven by many of the same factors as in the first millennium – climate change, demographics, war – then it can become absurd to make a Manichaean distinction between “good” refugees and “bad” migrants. If someone flees conflict and persecution in, say, Somalia, they are a “refugee”, and hence “good”; if they are born in a refugee camp just outside Somalia and, having endured abject poverty, flee in search of a better life, they are a “migrant”, and hence “bad”. A similar winnowing could have been attempted in the first millennium: are you fleeing the Huns who burned your village? Refugee. Climate change dried up your water supply? Migrant. It would have been as blunt an instrument then as it is now, and it wouldn’t have altered the overall process one iota.

The difference today is that we – the heirs, most of us, of those former waves of “refugees” and “migrants” into Europe, but often sharing the western-centric perspective of fifth century Romans – are not just fearfully standing on the imperial border waiting for the next ripple to arrive. We can see what’s happening far (and not so far) away. I don’t know what the answer is for how Europe should deal with this situation – but the UK approach of higher fences and each-country-for-itself is manifestly inadequate.


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