History and Archaeology: The State of Play in Early Medieval Europe

By Hills, Catherine | Antiquity, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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History and Archaeology: The State of Play in Early Medieval Europe


Hills, Catherine, Antiquity


This paper takes as its starting point three recent books, Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham, Europe After Rome by Julia Smith and The Fall of Rome, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. It also makes reference to four other major works published or revised within the last five years: The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Heather (2005), The Origins of the European Economy, by Michael McCormick (2001), The Rise of Western Christendom, by Peter Brown (2003) and Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, by Walter Goffart (2006). All seven deal with a period that it might be best to call 'the middle centuries of the first millennium AD in Europe and the Mediterranean' since all other terms reflect specific perspectives. Most define the period as an end, of the Roman empire, or a beginning, of the Early Middle Ages, while others define it in terms of what the author sees as the most important process: The Rise of Western Christendom (Brown) or The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire, (Goffart) although the last argues against the concept embodied in its title. All these works start from a primarily western European/Mediterranean perspective, and vary in the extent to which they take account of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe. All the authors are historians, but (except Goffart) they do engage with and use archaeological evidence, or at least written summaries of that evidence. This is the main reason for discussing them in Antiquity, because it is important for archaeologists to be aware of the ways their material is (or is not) being used by historians.

Most of these books, despite considerable size (400-800 pages of text) are not difficult to follow, as they are driven by an argument which carries the reader along. It is not necessary to absorb the details of every saint's life or battle to appreciate the account by Brown of the spread of Christianity, or Heather's story of the successive invasions, coups and campaigns which destroyed the western empire, and their arguments about those processes and events. McCormick argues his case for the existence of significant commercial activity in and around the Mediterranean between AD 300-900 on the basis of specific types of evidence which he lists in appendices--historical accounts of journeys, the sources of Christian relics, and the distribution of coins. Goffart revisits his earlier arguments about accommodation between Romans and barbarians in order to counter his critics, as well as arguing for 'a history of the Migration Age detached from German nationalism'.

Wickham, however, is attempting something more difficult, inevitably fraught with more pitfalls--as he recognises--which makes his book much more difficult to read and assess. He tries to let the detailed evidence speak for itself within the 'frameworks' of regional variation and social and economic structures. This inevitably risks losing the wood for the trees and demands rather close reading. In an introductory review Wickham identifies problems which he sets out to overcome, especially the lack of interpretative paradigms and real international scholarship in this field of research. He locates himself in the middle of the continuity/discontinuity debate, claiming to argue for elements of both. This is intrinsically persuasive, but less easy to present than clear adherence to one view or another. His focus is primarily social and economic history--cultural history is left for another book because this one is already 'pretty large' (p. 7), and religion hardly features as a factor in Wickham's world. While stressing regional variation he tries to overcome national bias in scholarship by comparative thematic discussion: not Italy followed by Spain, but taxation surveyed in all regions, exchange likewise. This is interesting, and convincing: he does show that the disintegration or transformation of the Roman infrastructures of government and economy took different paths in the various parts of Europe he examines.

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