THIS BOOK STRESSES variability so much that any overall conclusion is bound only to be partial: too many different approaches could be taken. And this is precisely the point. The early middle ages has always resisted synthesis; single generalizations about the motors of its development (Christianization, Roman–Germanic fusion, the breaking of the Mediterranean …) have always foundered. Accordingly, I have sought, not to provide 'The Answer', but the framing for answers, and generalizations that are consistently qualified by regional variation. Even then, the picture is incomplete. The variables chosen here, fiscal structures, aristocratic wealth, estate management, settlement pattern, peasant collective autonomy, urbanism, exchange, are not the full range that could have been provided. In particular, belief systems, values, gender roles and representations, ritual and cultural practices could in principle have been analysed in the same way, regionally and comparatively.1 I did not exclude them because they are unimportant; this book absolutely must not be read as a counterblast to the trend towards cultural history as a central element in contemporary historical scholarship, which is a trend I applaud. I chose here to focus on themes I was personally most familiar with, knowing anyway that any framing is only going to be the outer dimensions of the picture—the content, the crucial part, would have to be very much more variegated. But it must at least be said that a set of variables such as those discussed here are intended to be a guide for others, as they seek to fill in the content.
If you analyse any given society (or polity, or culture, or economy), in any aspect of its practices, you have to be aware of how it compares with other societies, and which alternatives are the most useful comparators. Historians who study one society alone, never looking at others, lack an essential control mechanism, and not only risk misunderstanding, of what are real causal elements or turning-points and what are not, but also are in danger of falling into the metanarratives of national identity, the teleologies of what makes Us special, which bedevil the historical enterprise. This book aims at providing for the period 400–800 a framework for understanding which
1 Good cross-cultural examinations of these variables across our period include Herrin,
Formation of Christendom, and perhaps above all (despite its teleological title) Brown, The
rise of western Christendom.