IN LATE ANTIQUE NORTHERN GAUL1
Frans Theuws and Monica Alkemade
Along with sable furs, and slave-boys who shine with the fair colour of barbarians, your fraternity has sent me swords, so sharp that they can even cut through armour, more costly than gold for their steel. Polished splendour glows from them, and reflects in complete clarity the faces of their admirers; their edges converge on the point with such equality that you would think they were cast in the furnace, rather than shaped by files. The centre of the blade is hollowed into a beautiful groove wrinkled by serpentine patterns: there such a variety of shadows plays together that you would suppose the gleaming metal to be a tapestry of various tints. All this your grindstone has diligently sharpened, your shining sand has carefully scoured, to make the steely light into a kind of mirror for men. (…) For their beauty the swords might be thought the work of Vulcan, he who fashioned implements of such grace that men believed the work of his hands to be not mortal, but divine.
(Cassiodorus, Variae V:1)2
Since the nineteenth century, descriptions like these have stirred the imagination of many. The Romantic nostalgia for a world long-gone has created an image of early medieval society which in every respect contradicts the rationalism and efficiency of modern life. This modern appreciation is however ambiguous. The valuation of medieval life seems to oscillate between images of on the one hand a Paradise Lost where brave heroes' deeds smoothed the path to civilization,
1 The topic is part of the research on late Roman and Merovingian elite-groups
in Northern Gaul, which the authors since 1990 have carried out within the 'Pionier-
project Power & Elite' (Instituut voor Pre- en Protohistorische Archeologie, Uni-
versity of Amsterdam)—financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific
2 The translation is taken from The Variae of Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator,
trans. S.J.B. Barnish (Liverpool, 1992), p. 83. The swords mentioned were received
as a present by Theoderic, king of the Ostrogoths, from the king of the Warni.