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

By Chris Wickham | Go to book overview

6
Political breakdown
and state-building in the North

1. From aristocratic to tribal societies

THIS CHAPTER FOCUSES on the lands north of the Roman empire and of the Frankish world, or, at least, on selected regions among them: Ireland and Denmark, which were never under Roman rule, and Britain, which lost most of its specifically Roman characteristics in the fifth century. Britain is indeed the most striking example anywhere of a province of the empire whose Roman socio-economic structures and identity broke down, quickly and almost totally, apparently for internal reasons; it will for that reason be the focus of the first half of this chapter, with parallel instances (in particular Berber North Africa) brought in for comparative purposes at the end. Of our three regions, two, Britain and Denmark, were moving (or returning) to increasingly elaborate and hierarchical political and socio-economic structures by the end of our period, which can be referred to as a process of statebuilding. Why these two moved in this direction, and the third region, Ireland, did not, and also why, inside Britain, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms did so more consistently than the Welsh ones, will be the subject-matter of the second half of the chapter. This process of 'state'-building was, however, at least as much one of the creation of a stable aristocracy, in particular of power and wealth based on the exclusive control of land; hence the location of this chapter among those on the aristocracy, rather than alongside Chapter 3.

At the start of Chapter 3 I characterized the ideal type of 'the state' according to five main criteria: (i) the centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army); (ii) specialization of governmental roles, with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time; (iii) the concept of a public power; (iv) independent and stable resources for rulers; and (v) a class-based system of surplusextraction and stratification. These criteria were not developed further there, for all the polities discussed in that chapter fell easily into the framework of such an ideal type. In this chapter, however, one could argue that only the Mercia of Offa and Cenwulf, at the very end of our period, could

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contents ix
  • List of Maps x
  • Abbreviations xi
  • Notes on Terminology xiv
  • 1: Introduction 1
  • Part I - States 15
  • 2: Geography and Politics 17
  • 3: The Form of the State 56
  • Part II - Aristocratic Power-Structures 151
  • 4: Aristocracies 153
  • 5: Managing the Land 259
  • 6: Political Breakdown and State-Building in the North 303
  • Part III - Peasantries 381
  • 7: Peasants and Local Societies 383
  • 8: Rural Settlement and Village Societies 442
  • 9: Peasant Society and Its Problems 519
  • Part IV - Networks 589
  • 10: Cities 591
  • 11: Systems of Exchange 693
  • 12: General Conclusions 825
  • Bibliography 832
  • General Index 945
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