Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800

By Chris Wickham | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

IN THE LAST three decades the study of the early middle ages has been transformed. Far more people write about its documentary history; what we can say about its archaeology has multiplied tenfold—in some countries, a hundredfold. The sorts of questions asked about the material have changed radically too, with far more sophisticated analyses of political process and cultural change being now offered than ever existed before. This development is, of course, common to the historical profession as a whole; all the same, in some areas—the analysis of the construction of sanctity, for example—the period 400–800 is a trendsetter. The community of scholars is also more international than it was: this is an ongoing process, started for early medievalists above all by the Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo and their Spoleto conferences from 1953 onwards, and in the last decade channelled, in highly stimulating ways, by the European Science Foundation's Transformation of the Roman World project of 1993–8.

These are all wholly positive developments. What has not developed, however, is a set of interpretative paradigms that fully reflect this flowering of scholarship. When I was a student around 1970, we looked for an overview of western European development in this period to Alfons Dopsch and Henri Pirenne, both born in the 1860s, who worked out their major rival contributions in the 1920s. Today, although Dopsch has (unjustly) faded a little into the background, he has not been replaced by any successor, and Pirenne is still a key point of reference, cited all the time. Historians of other periods argue over the theories of scholars who are often still living; the early middle ages, despite the fact that its scholarship (and even its evidence-base, thanks to archaeology) has been transformed more than those of most periods, has not seen a successful revision of its founding paradigms, and actually not even many unsuccessful ones. This is particularly the case for social and economic history, my principal interest in this book. There are some good economic surveys, but they are usually fairly summary accounts, as with Georges Duby's stimulating foray into the period, Guerriers et paysans, of 1975, or Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's archaeological rewriting of Pirenne, Mohammed, Charlemagne and the origins of Europe, of 1982, although our understanding of long-distance exchange has recently been transformed by Michael

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