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

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

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

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


The Roman empire tends to be seen as a whole whereas the early middle ages tends to be seen as a collection of regional histories, roughly corresponding to the land-areas of modern nation states. As a result, early medieval history is much more fragmented, and there have been few convincing syntheses of socio-economic change in the post-Roman world since the 1930s. In recent decades, the rise of early medieval archaeology has also transformed our source-base, but this has not been adequately integrated into analyses of documentary history in almost any country.

In Framing the Early Middle Ages Chris Wickham aims at integrating documentary and archaeological evidence together, and also, above all, at creating a comparative history of the period 400-800, by means of systematic comparative analyses of each of the regions of the latest Roman and immediately post-Roman world, from Denmark to Egypt (only the Slav areas are left out). The book concentrates on classic socio-economic themes, state finance, the wealth and identity of the aristocracy, estate management, peasant society, rural settlement, cities, and exchange. These are only a partial picture of the period, but they are intended as a framing for other developments, without which those other developments cannot be properly understood.

Wickham argues that only a complex comparative analysis can act as the basis for a wider synthesis. Whilst earlier syntheses have taken the development of a single region as 'typical', with divergent developments presented as exceptions, this book takes all different developments as typical, and aims to construct a synthesis based on a better understanding of difference and the reasons for it. This is the most ambitious and original survey of the period ever written.


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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