Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century — that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high medieval period. Wickham is an evangelist when it comes to understanding medieval history; he believes that our intellectual culture has seriously misunderstood the nature of society, politics, culture, and religion in the millennium between the fifth century and the fifteenth century. The opening words of the book capture this conviction:
Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood. It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives, both highly influential in the history and history-writing of the last two centuries, and both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity. Before we consider a different sort of approach, we need to look at both of these, briefly but critically, to see what is wrong with each; for most readers of this book who have not already studied the period will have one or both in the front of their minds as a guiding image. (3)
His point against “ontological nationalism” is straightforward and entirely accurate: there was no “France” or “Belgium” in the fifth century, and there was no precursor to those national identities either. Rather, the “France” that emerged as a nation a thousand years later was the product of a myriad of contingencies — military, climatic, religious, global, and internal — and, in fact, France even in the twentieth century was not a single unified nation. Alsace and Breton retain regional identities to the present that diverge to various degrees from the notion of “unified French identity”. (See discussions of Emmanuel Todd (link) and Theodor Zeldin (link) on these points.) Wickham is entirely right, then, to object to the teleological idea that various European nations were in the oven in the early medieval period, and just waiting to be born.
But likewise, Wickham rejects the teleology of inevitable economic and political development as well — the idea that the continent was making its way towards modernity, extensive trade, and modern production techniques. As readers of the blog have seen in discussions of the “breakthrough debate”, it is evident that European economic development was both more heterogeneous than this conception would permit, and also much more subject to contingency and path-dependency than the modernization paradigm would suggest (link, link, link). Against these teleological frameworks for historical understanding, Wickham insists on something different:
I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight. The long stretch of time between 400 and 1000 has its own validity as a field of study, which is in no way determined by what went before or came after. To attribute values to it (or to parts of it, as with those who, with the image of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, want to attach the ninth and perhaps tenth centuries to the grand narrative of ‘real’ history, at the expense, presumably, of the sixth to eighth) is a pointless operation. And to me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, the ‘othering’ of the period simply seems meaningless. The wealth of recent scholarship on the period gives the lie to this whole approach to seeing history; and this book will have failed if it appears to support it in any way. (6)
Or in other words, we need to treat the developments that unfolded between the boot of Italy and the north of Scotland in their own terms, recognizing heterogeneity, multiple actors, path-dependency, surprising events, and the deep and persistent fact of contingency. “The third aim has been to look at the period 400–1000, and all the sub-periods inside that long stretch of time, in their own terms, without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, so as to sidestep the grand narratives criticized above” (p. 11). Wickham refers to a new emerging paradigm for medieval history:
That paradigm sees many aspects of late Antiquity (itself substantially revalued: the late Roman empire is now often seen as the Roman high point, not an inferior and totalitarian copy of the second-century pax romana) continuing into the early Middle Ages without a break. More specifically: the violence of the barbarian invaders of the empire is a literary trope; there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents; the seventh century in the West, although the low point for medieval evidence, produced more surviving writings than any Roman century except the fourth and sixth, showing that a literate culture had by no means vanished in some regions; in short, one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome. This position is explicit in much recent work on the fifth-century invasions, but it affects the study of later centuries, into the ninth century and beyond, in much more indirect ways. It is rare to find historians actually writing that Charlemagne, say, was essentially operating in a late Roman political-cultural framework, even when they are implying it by the ways they present him. This is a problem, however; for, whether or not one believes that Charlemagne was actually operating in such a framework, the issue cannot properly be confronted and argued about until it is brought out into the open. And it can be added that historians have, overall, been much more aware that catastrophe is a literary cliché in the early Middle Ages than that continuity – accommodation – is one as well. (8-9)
An important part of the historiography of Wickham’s work is his recognition that archaeology and the documentation of material culture is progressing rapidly, even as the available texts from the period have come close to exhaustion. Moreover, he recognizes that the study of material culture — the architecture of manors, rural homes, and fortifications, for example — provides a different kind of insight into the history of the period than do the available documents. This isn’t a new idea in history; Mommsen recognized the importance of material artifacts and inscriptions in his History of Rome in 1871. but it continues to be an important reminder for historians who tend to continue to be primarily interested in texts and archives. His treatment of architecture during the period — great and small — is especially interesting and revealing, and the photographs that accompany the exposition are outstanding.
The intervisuality of architectural style is one of the most powerful conveyors of meaning and visual effect. As remarked at the start of this book, archaeology, and the study of material culture in its widest sense in art history and architectural history, tends to tell us different sorts of things from the study of narrative and documentary texts. Material culture tells us more about the use of space, the function of spatial relationships, as well as, of course, stylistic and technological changes; written culture tells us more about human relationships, choices, conscious representations of the world around us. But the construction of visual meaning, by emperors and peasants alike, links these two worlds: it is material culture, not words, which tells us about the choices of al-Walid, or Paschal, or Julian and Domna in Serjilla. That is why this chapter is the central one in this book; it offers a way to compare the strategies of every actor in the early Middle Ages, rich or poor, and not – for once – just those who had access to the written word. And the audiences of buildings such as these were also far wider than those of any written text, save of the sections of the Bible and Qur’an most often read out in religious ceremonies, and these latter tended not to change much across time and space. The whole population of Europe was thus involved in the communication discussed in this chapter, and could even, if they chose, participate as communicators, not just as audiences. Indeed, as archaeology makes its inevitable advances in the future, this is a sector of historical knowledge which, for a change, we shall know progressively more about. (250-251)
Another noteworthy aspect of Wickham’s approach to the history of this millennium of change is that he is interested in considering the actors’ points of view — including at least occasionally the points of view of peasants, women, traders, and other non-elite participants in medieval society. Here is a complicated story involving legal institutions, the daughter of a lesser landowner, and an exercise of the woman’s creative agency to achieve her goals:
In 721 Anstruda of Piacenza in northern Italy made an unusual charter. She sold her own legal independence to the brothers Sigirad and Arochis, because she had married their unfree dependant (servus). She and they agreed that her future sons should remain the brothers’ dependants in perpetuity, but her daughters could buy their independence at marriage for the same money, 3 solidi, that Anstruda herself had received. Although Lombard Italy was a relatively legally aware country (and Piacenza is not far from the capital), this charter breaks at least three laws: the law forbidding free–slave marriages; the law, or at least assumption, that the unfree were not legal persons, so Anstruda’s daughters could not be assigned future rights; and the law prohibiting female legal autonomy. Anstruda’s father Authari, a vir honestus or small landowner, consented to the document, but the money for Anstruda’s legal rights went to her directly, and she is the actor throughout. There is an ironic sense in which this account of a young peasant woman, even though she was selling her own freedom, shows how she could make her own rules, create her own social context, even in as restrictive a society for female autonomy as Lombard Italy. This may say something about Anstruda as a person; it also says something about the fluidity of peasant society in Italy. (203)
Consistently with Wickham’s emphasis on contingency and heterogeneity across space, many of the regions he discussions from the sixth and later centuries display an extreme degree of political fragmentation. “Kings” were often monarchs of very limited domains indeed, and especially so in Britain:
The post-Roman British in the lowlands probably operated on a smaller scale still. The only lowland powers who can be traced in any detail are the kings of Ergyng, Gwent, the Cardiff region and Gower, all in lowland south-east Wales, some documents for whom, land-grants to churches, survive from the late sixth century onwards: these kings ruled perhaps a third of a modern county each, and sometimes less. This was the Romanized section of Wales, and this sort of scale may well have been normal in the whole of lowland Britain. It probably derived from the first generations after the end of Roman rule, in which local landowners had to look to their own self-defence, and even the Roman city territories, the traditional units of government in lowland Britain as elsewhere, soon fragmented into rather smaller de-facto units. (152-53)
It is not easy to tell what Welsh kings did. They evidently fought a lot, and their military entourage is one of their best-documented features. They were generous and hospitable to their dependants, and (at least in literature) got loyalty to the death in return, although where they got their resources from is not so clear. They took tribute from subject and defeated rulers, and also tribute or rent from their own people, but the little we know of the latter implies that only fairly small quantities were owed by the peasant population to their lords; Mynyddog’s gold, silver and glass were a literary image, too. (154)
Frankish kings operated on a vastly larger scale. They controlled more territory, they gathered more significant armies, and they gathered taxes and resources on a much larger scale.
The lasting importance of the Merovingian royal courts was in large part due to the huge wealth that every king or maior could dispose of. Kings owned very large tracts of land; they had access to commercial tolls and judicial fines. They also for long controlled the surviving elements of the Roman land tax. These are described (and complained about) by Gregory of Tours, and they seem to have been most firmly rooted in the south-west, the Loire valley and Aquitaine. Even in Gregory’s time, as noted in Chapter 4, the tax system was not very systematically maintained: registers could go without updating for a generation, tax levels were far lower than under Rome, and royal cessions of tax immunity to whole city territories were beginning. Indeed, an organic fiscal structure of a Roman type could not still have existed if kings moved cities between each other so easily. By the mid-seventh century tax liabilities seem to have become fixed tributes, taken from smaller and smaller areas. In the north, this process may well have started earlier, and Chlotar II formally renounced the right to new taxes in 614; by 626–7 a church council at Clichy near Paris regarded taxpayers as an inferior category, to be excluded from the ranks of the clergy. It is likely that the tax system had already decayed so much that Chlotar could regard it as worth abandoning, for political effect; it only survived regionally after that (it is documented in the Loire valley into the 720s at least). (120)
Of particular interest is Wickham’s treatment of the nature and extent of trade during the sixth and seventh centuries. This is interesting because of the light it sheds on the question of the degree of social integration that existed across regions. But it is also interesting in light of Henri Pirenne’s assessment of the dynamics of trade in those centuries (link). Significantly, Wickham goes into a fair amount of detail in addressing Pirenne’s account, which he finds to be incorrect in several important ways.
Wickham concurs with Pirenne that trade became substantially more limited and localized in the early medieval period (fifth century) than during the Roman Empire. (He also notes that there is evidence of population decline in absolute numbers and density, though he suggests that the reasons for this decline are not yet well understood.)
The early medieval period was also one in which exchange became much more localized. We have already observed that the fifth century saw the weakening of the great Mediterranean routes when the Vandals broke the Carthage–Rome tax spine in 439. These routes by no means vanished overnight, however. (218)
The evidence that Wickham believes to be most important today — though not available to Pirenne at the beginning of the twentieth century — is archaeological: excavations that have uncovered pottery, metal goods, and other routine and ordinary products used in everyday life and that permit historians to document trading networks with some exactness. Pirenne’s account depends on written records that mention items such as spices, precious metals, and papyrus. But as Wickham points out, these are luxury goods, and are poor “markers” for the networks of trade that existed in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. And this is a crucial problem for an account that attempts to provide an accurate economic history of the period.
Early Anglo-Saxon England is the best-documented example of a really simple exchange system. Its archaeology shows us that all English pottery before around 720 was handmade, and mostly very locally produced, not necessarily by professional potters, and not even in kilns. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons import much wheel-turned pottery from the Continent (most of it is found in Kent). The frequent presence of weaving tools in house-compounds and female graves shows that cloth was made inside individual households, as well…. It would be difficult, however, to say that England had much of a market economy before the eighth century; the huge bulk of production of artisanal goods was at the level of the single village. England can here stand for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where much the same was true. (218)
England was at the low end of economic activity in the early medieval period; the most extensive trading systems existed across the English Channel:
The largest-scale economy in the early medieval West was the Frankish heartland. Here the networks of late Roman ceramic productions, based on supplying the Rhine army but extending across the whole of northern Gaul, in the Argonne forest above Verdun for terra sigillata tableware, in the Mayen industrial kiln complex near Trier for coarse-ware containers and tableware, continued after the army vanished, a little reduced in scale but still available over wide areas. Argonne ware had gone by 600, and Merovingian carinated fine wares were generally made on a rather smaller scale, but the Badorf ware of the kiln sites near Cologne, which replaced them after 700, was a new centralized production which could be found throughout the middle and lower Rhine valley, and further afield, and Mayen ware continued to be available over similar areas without a break. (220)
Here the archaeological evidence is extensive, and most so in the case of ceramics (plateware). The system of manufacturing and trade that Wickham describes is certainly large in scope and implies developed systems of traders, markets, and money.
The core of the evidence presented here is the production and distribution of pottery, always the best evidenced product in archaeological excavations. Metal and also glass seem to have had similar patterns, generally showing distribution networks a little wider than those of ceramics, though they are less clearly visible (one can often tell from petrological analysis of potsherds where they came from; metal and glass are too often melted down for this to be possible, and we are reliant on stylistic analysis, which can be misleading, as there was much local copying of successful styles in our period). Cloth, the most important of all, is the great unknown out of such artisanal productions, for it so seldom survives on sites, but it would be reasonable to argue that the scale of its production often matched that of ceramics, and this seems relatively clear in England at least. These were the major artisanal products of the early Middle Ages, and they are the essential markers of economic complexity, along with more occasional agricultural specializations for sale, like the vineyards of northern Francia and also of parts of the south Italian coast. It is reasonably clear from this evidence that northern Francia had a much more complex and active exchange system than anywhere else in the West before 800, that the Mediterranean lands were more fragmented, with pockets of greater complexity and greater simplicity; and that Britain and the rest of the North was as a whole far simpler in exchange terms than almost anywhere further south. The difference between the two sides of the English Channel was particularly acute, and certainly not overcome by imports into England, which were anyway not so very numerous. (pp. 221-222)
This reconstruction of medieval trade differs from that provided by other historians, and differs from Pirenne’s account in particular. In addition to the fact that the archaeological evidence now available was not available to Pirenne, Wickham believes that Pirenne’s analysis made two large mistakes of historical interpretation:
The first was that it laid far too much stress on long-distance exchange, between the East (sometimes the Far East) and the West, which was always marginal to the main lines of trade; these latter operate above all inside regions or between neighbouring regions, and only very exceptionally extend beyond them (as with the African hegemony over the late Roman Mediterranean, which was, precisely, a product of the needs of an exceptionally powerful state). The second was that most of Pirenne’s arguments concerned luxuries: the availability of gold, spices, silk and papyrus in the West (the last of these was certainly not a luxury in Egypt – it was an industrial product – but arguably had become so in the West by the seventh century). This was perhaps forgivable, as luxuries are almost all the examples of traded goods that are mentioned in early medieval written sources. But luxuries, too, are marginal to economic systems; they are defined by their high price and restricted availability, so that only the rich can possess them, and they therefore represent wealth, power and status. (p. 223)
And just in case the reader is wondering about King Mynyddog of Gododdin, here’s a snippet:
Our earliest poetic texts in Welsh date from the seventh century to the ninth, and these contain a number of laments on dead kings, including Marwnad Cynddylan, the earliest, for King Cynddylan, based in or near modern Shropshire, who died in the mid-seventh century, and Y Gododdin, the longest, for King Mynyddog of Gododdin, who supposedly took his army from his capital at Edinburgh to Catraeth, perhaps modern Catterick, where they all died around 600. These show a homogeneous set of ‘heroic’ values, which were clearly those of the Welsh aristocracy by 800 at the latest: ‘The warrior . . . would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold.’ Or: ‘The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that these values were already shared in the sixth century. Whenever they developed, however, they were a world away from those of Rome. This is important as a reflection of the political crisis we began with, for these military élites were lineal descendants of British Romans, unconquered by invaders; all the same, all their points of reference were by now different. They were quite parallel, however, to those of the Anglo-Saxons. (p. 154)
Is medieval history cumulative? Do contemporary historians build on the tracks laid down by the historians of the period who came before? That is a complicated question, and one can justify “no” as well as “yes”. It is of course true that earlier historians of the early medieval period have discovered and presented much that is accurate and interesting about the period. But it is also true that history changes over time: historians come to see the blindspots of their predecessors, they come to conceptualize the past differently, and they come to understand that some aspects of the story have not been investigated at all. Wickham’s history does some of all of that: reconceptualization, highlighting of new questions, and discovery of ways in which distinguished historians in the past century or so have both discovered their own important insights into the material, and made substantial errors of interpretation or reconstruction.
There is much more to Wickham’s book than has been mentioned here. In a later post I expect to treat his reconstruction of the Muslim conquests of these same territories.
As I’ve felt many times in reading complex histories, I wish that authors and publishers would catch up to the basic possibilities of computer animation as companion materials for a history book like this one. It would be enormously helpful to have a handful of animated maps the reader could follow as he or she reads the text, watching (for example) the spread of Arab conquerers over a fifty-year period from Spain into France and Italy, or the rise and fall of small and medium-sized kingships around the Rhine, or the advance and retreat of the armed power of the pope and bishops. These are historical dynamics that are difficult to express or grasp fully in text, but would be visible at a glance with a well-constructed animation showing stages of change in 25-year increments. A resource that provides some of this capability is the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, maintained at Harvard University (link), which allows the user to locate places and a number of relevant historical events on a single ESRI digital base map. Here is a screenshot of a display including medieval towns across the continent.
And once we are thinking about computer graphics to accompany a work of historical exposition, it would also make sense to have a large number of reproductions of the existing paintings, sculptures, buildings, fortifications, roads, fields, ploughs, and granaries that are still available. This is one reason I collected a number of basic maps in a recent post on new thinking about the medieval period (link). (I made a similar suggestion in my discussion of Steve Pincus’s new history of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link).)