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Book Review: The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham

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I find the post-Roman period of European history fascinating. Today we live in a world in which the idea of progress – that next year’s computer must be better than last year’s – is all-pervasive. Yet for many centuries Europeans lived in the shadow of buildings far greater than anything they could hope to build, with crumbling technology they couldn’t hope to replace, in societies whose institutions were visibly degrading. It was a very different world, and one that I find psychologically fascinating.

So when mediaeval history e-mail list came up with an almost unanimous recommendation for Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome, I had to lay hands on a copy. And I wasn’t disappointed. There’s plenty of detail in his account, including an introduction to some great women of the period, but where this book really shines is in its analysis of general trends and explanation of the big changes of the period. He’s always trying to answer the “why” question – always I think the most interesting one.

And he’s looking for the big picture. So one of his big themes is the importance of land tax collection for the maintenance of a centralised, complex administrative state, and a sophisticated economy. That’s what Rome had in spades, but it fell apart quickly in the west, with aristocracies and societies becoming much more localized and usually poorer.

Another big theme is the relative power of royalty, aristocracy and peasantry. “A strong state essentially depended on peasant exploitation. We cannot easily say which peasants would have preferred: the security most powerful rulers ould give them (a security which was only relative; the reigns of Justinian, Charlemagne and Basil II have all left clear evidence of local violence and oppression); all the autonomy, and lower rents and tributes, which most peasants had in the small and weak polities of Britain or the Slav and Scandinavian worlds before the 10th century; and autonomy which was risky if stronger invaders came through on rating enslaving expeditions…. ( I think they would have preferred autonomy.)”

He also takes what for me anyway is very original look at the Arab caliphate, whose structures he sees as far more structurally linked to their Roman predecessors than might commonly be supposed.

His picture in a paragraph of this whole period runs:

“The political patterns of Europe and the Mediterranean across the period of 400 to 1000 resolve themselves into three blocks, roughly separate chronologically. In the first, the Roman empire dominated western and southern Europe and the Mediterranean, that rivals to the North at all. This ended in the fifth century in the West, of course, although Justinian partly reversed that in the western Mediterranean; it continued until the early seven in the East. The second period was one of polycentric power; by 700 the major western polities with three – Merovingian Francia, Visigothic Spain and Lombard Italy – fairly evenly matched and each more powerful than any other neighbour, set against the expanding Umayyad caliphate and a Byzantine empire hanging on by its teeth. The third period was one of three major powers, the Franks, Byzantines, and the Abbasids, which by 950 was reduced to the first two of these, the Franks weakening, the Byzantines strengthening; these two were hegemonic in Europe by the late eighth century, and helped the politics of the North to develop as well, by 1000 or shortly after.”

But the “whys” just keep coming. So he explains the lack of theological argument in the West in the sixth and seventh centuries by a failure to develop a critical mass of educated churchmen. He says literacy was not as poor in the period as has been claimed – kings and the lay aristocracy could normally read and sometime compose in quite elaborate Latin even if writing was regarded as a specific technical skill for copyists – and there were even some quite large libraries. But Bede in Jarrow was the only intellectual in Northumbria in his age. So Wickham says drily: “he really had no one to argue with. He tried; some of Bede’s writings (particularly about chronological computation) are quite rude. But this is a long way from the concentration of trained and ambitious theologians in the great Eastern cities, Alexandria and Antioch, which had produced Arianism or Nestorianism.”

But he says with the Carolingians, there’s a huge change: “the whole of the Carolingian elite cared about theology, or had to pretend they did”. Charlemagne had a political project, to reform or correct the inner life of both lay and ecclesiastical subjects. Why? Wickham says that the Carolingians relied on the church for legitimacy as a ruling family, but what rested on the personal character of Charlemagne. The moralising ritual also helped to hold together what was a huge empire, “larger than any subsequent state in Europe has everything except the brief years at the height of the power of Napoleon and Hitler, and also extremely diverse, stretching is taken from the half-converted and roadless land of Saxony to be old urban societies of Provence and Italy.”

He sees the important political change in the quick development in the post-Roman period of public assemblies, representing in post-Roman kingdoms “the principle that the King had a direct relationship with all free Franks, or the Lombards, for Burgundians”. Here he sees the development of political practice of the less Romanised or unRomanised peoples in the new world, (p. 101) although still very much drawing on the Roman idea of the public space, the arena of the state. It was important still for the Carolingians.

He debunks the popular view that in the early middle ages lived in small groups huddled in tiny settlements surrounded or menaced by an cultivated woodland in waste. “Even in what is now Germany, where the great forests went into the modern period, these for the most part were exploited … for rough grazing (as well as the hunting), already in this period”. Wickham turns to archaeology to explain that villages could be ordered and relatively sophisticated. “Regular sets of wooden buildings and outbuildings in courtyards are common in North European archaeology from Northumbria and Denmark to Bavaria, particularly from the seventh century onwards, and often before.”

Nonetheless, he is not what he calls “a continuist”. He acknowledges that density of archaeological sites decreases, and suggests that in northern France and Eastern England low-plateau areas may have turned back to pasture, with settlements and fields concentrated in the river valleys. There is a population drop is hard to explain. There was plague in the eastern Mediterranean in 541 and returning in the late sixth and seventh centuries, but, he says, the archaeology of the East doesn’t suggests catastrophe. “Demographic drops do seem to coincide with periods of political crisis and the lesson of aristocratic power, however, it is possible that a decreasing intensity of peasant subjection, together with the lessening concern for systematic estate management allowed slow reductions in local populations. The slow demographic growth of the Carolingian period conversely went hand-in-hand with an increase in aristocratic landowning and in the intensity of exploitation of a tenant population.”

We make much today of the complexity of the ethnic identities, but Wichkam says in the sixth and seventh centuries in Western Europe, identities were every bit as fluid, as situational and multifaceted as they are today. So there were followers of Theodoric, in the train of the king of the Goths, Ostrogoths in our terminology, but some of them would until recently have been Roman, some Rugi, some Huns some Gepids, and after the defeat of Odovcacer, some Heruls, Sciri and Torcilingi. And there could be some very curious Romans indeed. So Sidonius praised the Visigothic King Theodoric II “for his seriousness, this accessibility to ambassadors and petitioners (and his board games), and playing down his Arianism”.

On the detail: Wickham fascinatingly notes how stress on aristocratic meat-eating came from the Franks and probably other “barbarian” peoples. The Romans by contrast had valued complexity of ingredients and the cost. But in Spain in the sixth century, bishops persecuted Priscillianists, among whose beliefs was vegetarianism, “a standard ascetic trait”. So the 561 Council in Braga ordered that vegetarian clerics had to at least cook the Greens in meat broth to demonstrate the orthodoxy.

He introduces the Visigoth king Chindasuinth (capital Toledo, 642-53) who broke a cycle of coups after taking the throne at the age of nearly 80, by executing 700 aristocrats (at least one report says), depriving many others of their rights, and enacting a Draconian treason law. And good for those tricky quiz questions: the Lombards in the 740s instituted a passport system in the Alpine frontier for pilgrims to Rome, giving them a sealed document which they expected back on the return journey.

Wickham is also interested in what the people of the period knew about the past. He reports on the ‘Brief Historical Notes’, an anonymous mid-eighth-century text from Constantinople, which consists of a collection of details about monuments of the city, particularly its statues. “This history was above all of the fourth and fifth centuries (often misunderstood), much less the sixth ( there is surprisingly little about Justinian) and less still of the seventh and eighth. This is a key to the text: it represented a genuine antiquarian interest, with statues operating as a memory Theatre in an individual sense, but his author or authors looked at the great days of the Christian Roman Empire across a huge divide, and did not by any means know much about what that Empire meant.”

There is an enormous amount of detail in this book, but I never felt bogged down in it. There’s always a sense that Wickham knows where he’s going with this hugely broadranging survey of a period of which most of us know little. I couldn’t say that I’m totally on top of it now, after reading The Inheritance of Rome, but I certainly have a much better idea of the general state of the world, and what it was like to live in what we used to call the Dark Ages.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.