I think this an excellent book. 'Enjoyable' might not be the right word for a book which faces so clearly the many horrors of the period but it is powerful, and it is gripping, full of striking and often challenging insights, and full of sharp and telling detail. Fleming expresses her regret at the lack of evidence currently available for a more comprehensive treatment of the Welsh and the Picts. Nevertheless the geographical coverage is wide, with fascinating material from places ranging from Westness, Orkney, and Cnip, Isle of Lewis,in the North to Mawgan Porth, Cornwall,in the South, and from Llanbedrgoch, and Lllandough in the West to Hartlepool and Bardney in the East.
Fleming offers a vivid picture of Britain's economic and political collapse as the period of Roman power drew to an end: suburbs, 'vital centres of manufacturing and commerce' crumbled; cities decayed; and even though some country estates became richer and bigger, that was at the expense of many other smaller estates, and at the expense of the functioning of the economy as a whole. There were clogged sewers; there were no nails for boots or coffins; and old cremation urns were used as cooking pots. The book traces the gradual development of new centres of power, and of trade, the development of town and village life, and the growth of central authority (including the authority of the church) and the structures through which it was exercised. York is an example. It had been had been ruined and empty; the archaeological evidence is of a place of frog-hoppers, shrews and voles. It became a town in which there was 'a terrible combination of insects, micro-organisms and filth [which] must lie behind much of the human misery etched on the bones of the urban dead'. For most people life became shorter and more stressed, though for the privileged there is evidence at the end of this period of a longer life, together with the problems of affluence like obesity and late-onset type 2 diabetes.
Fleming uses textual sources including Ausonius, Gildas and Bede as well as Beowulf and the Orkneyinga Saga. However she stresses the importance of material evidence in questioning neat and over-simple explanations and distinctions, for example, between ethnic groups or between pagan and Christian practices. She argues that archaeological evidence makes it more possible to write a history of the lives, deaths and beliefs of 'flesh and blood people never described in texts'.
In writing such a history she often uses contrasting case studies, as in her account of the Vikings. The first case study is Brycheiniog, and that uses the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and archaeological evidence to illustrate the destruction of a palace. With silk-embroidered textiles and lap dogs it was destroyed not by Vikings but by English and Welsh forces taking advantage of the chaos of the time. Secondly there is the horrific evidence of the destruction of Repton by Vikings, followed by the assimilation and Christianisation of the invaders. Thirdly evidence from Westness and Cnip points not to the genocide of the Pictish population by the Vikings, but to Viking immigration accompanied by a long process of mixing Pictish and Norse objects and building styles. Complementing that is the material on the life of the Vikings in Scandinavia as farmers and traders as well as raiders.
Other kinds kinds of history are possible, but that does not invalidate Fleming's approach. It is entirely possible to disagree with some of its judgements - and I am uneasy about drawing a sharp distinction between settlements and invasions - while being grateful for the clarity of the case made by Fleming and the range of evidence she presents.