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Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 [Paperback]

Chris Wickham
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Nov 2006
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 combines documentary and archaeological evidence to create a comparative history of the period 400-800. His analysis embraces each of the regions of the late Roman and immediately post-Roman world, from Denmark to Egypt. 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 give only a partial picture of the period, but they frame and explain other developments.
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.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 1024 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed edition (30 Nov 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199212961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199212965
  • Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 16.5 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 37,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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a tremendous achievement, demonstrating mastery over half a dozen fields of scholarship. (David Abulafia, THES)

Wickham's work is groundbreaking ... Some of his conclusions may and should be debated, but they rest on an array of evidence and on a series of complex atguments that further discussions should not ignore. (Walter Pohl, Speculum)

About the Author

Chris Wickham received his DPhil from Oxford in 1975. He was Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Birmingham until his appointment as Chichele Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Oxford in 2005. He has been editor of Past and Present since 1995.

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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An epic survey of four centuries of history 13 Jan 2007
Chris Wickham has constructed an important synthesis of the state of play in early medieval studies. Surveying regions as varied as Italy, Africa, Egypt, Syria and Denmark, Wickham focuses in particular on social and economic developments during the transformation of the ancient world.

The positive aspects of this book are numerous. The prose is intelligent and erudite without lapsing into the unreadable. The evidence is clearly presented and analsyed on its own terms, rather than being crowbared into 'metanarratives', of which Wickham remains suspicious throughout. The fascination of the book lies in its detail. Whether Danish excavations, Anatolian saints' lives or Egyptian tax records, the depth and breadth of research is extraordinary.

Wickham successfully surveys the Mediterranean world and northern Europe, aware of the differences between regions, but not afraid to draw useful comparisons. The areas of particular interest - peasantries, aristocracies and settlement structure - have seen much valuable research in recent decades, but have rarely been tackled by a single author. Wickham does not seek so much as to propose new macromodels to explain the early middle ages, but to draw the parameters for study and synthesise existing ideas.

So why does this book not get five stars? There are two reasons. Firstly, Wickham, while rightly suspicious of overarching explanations, is sometimes a little too cautious in his conclusions, when a historian of his experience and magnitude could perhaps stick his neck out a little further without fear. Secondly, the book, although necessarily a weighty tome, is perhaps a hundred pages too long.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 17 Aug 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Extremely useful for my history degree. Recommended to all who wish to have an overall opinion on the topic at hand.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vastly impressive, but.... 2 Jan 2011
By BarryT
I'm slightly fearful of criticising this book, since the author is such a prominent scholar in the field, and since it is in so many ways such a massive achievement of coordination and comparison across a vast subject.

My concern stems only from my (limited) knowledge of the newer directions that research into the Dark Age in Britain (and specifically England) have been taking in recent years. Wickham shows that he was well aware when writing of some of the cogent arguments against the "traditional" interpretation - of a significant immigration by an "Anglo-Saxon" population - but seems unable fully to embrace and assess these. His passages on the British experience in the earlier part of the period retain too many long-established shibboleths, and he seeks too hard for tenuous or spurious evidence to bolster that traditional view. A few too many assumptions and "guesses" are deployed in support.

I look forward to reading his newest book - recently published - to see whether his academic rigour is overcoming his long-held prejudices. He needs - along with many other Anglo-Saxon scholars - to consider what the accumulating evidence AGAINST the large-scale-immigration orthodoxy may mean for interpretations of the status quo ante (Roman and pre-Roman periods) and the potential causes for the apparently greater dislocations in these islands after Roman control started to slip.

It is these doubts about an area I DO know a little about, that just make me wonder about some of those in which my ignorance is outstanding...
Subject to that, it's highly recommended reading, particularly for clarifying the vast differences between different parts of Europe in the aftermath of Rome.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Towering achievement 28 Mar 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Perhaps a little too anxious to lighten the impact of the dark ages after the fall of Rome, but a breadth of scholarship that will be hard to match in the future.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sure to set the standard on the Subject 30 Aug 2008
By John E. Mack - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a monumental review of the economic and social histories of the former provinces of the Roman Empire between the penetration of the empire by the barbarians and the imperial coronation of Charlemagne. Along with the Origins of the European Economy, this book is likely to be the standard social and economic survey of the dark ages for years to come. The author surveys each of the major territorial regions of the fomer Roman Empire region-by-region, and slowly develops his theses. These include: (1) a "soft-fall" view of the disintegration of the Western Empire, concluding that many of its structures were in place well into the seventh century and gradually were melded into the less sophisticated successor states of Western Europe; (2) a taxation-driven notion of the state, concluding that the major factor distinguishing Rome and Roman power from that of successor states is that Rome had an elaborate and relatively efficient tax system, and that the successor states did not; (3) a regionalist approach to conclusions, finding that things changed in different degrees in different ways throughout the territories of the Roman Empire -- slowly and relatively little in the East, massively in Britain, in odd ways in Spain and Gaul; (4) a picture of transformation from peasant-based society to feudal society, occurring rather later than many historians would allow; (5) a strong de-emphasis on barbarian wars and conquests as an explanation for these transformations; and (5) a peasant's eye view of the transformation from Roman Empire to the Middle Ages.

It is in the latter that the only real problem with the book arises. The author is so pro-peasant in his view that he takes what could be called a "Xena" view of medieval class struggles. In Xena (and Conan, and Red Sonya, and 10,000 B.C., to name but a few sword-and-sorcery potboilers) there is a familiar scene where the peaceful peasants are going about their village business, talking to each other and carrying out their daily tasks, while a band of heavily-armed thugs is approaching the village on horseback, ready to destroy it with fire and sword. In this author's world, heavily-financed aristocrats are about to encroach on an idylic and egalitarian peasant world, forcing the formerly free peasantry to pay rent, work harder, and have more children. In what is perhaps his most radical claim, the author suggests that the serious decline in population from the late empire to about 700 A.D. was due, not to war, pestilence, famine and occupation but -- family planning! He admits that he cannot prove this, but it is clearly an idea which attracts him. I am dubious -- it is difficult to think of any other society between the birth of agriculture and the industrial revolution where the bulk of the population did not breed to its Malthusian limit, and the claim that early medieval Europe was an exception would require a good deal of proof.

That said, this is a wonderful book. Even its bias supplies a point of view which has been the subject of all-too-little factual analysis in the past. And by focusing on social relations above all, the author presents a very different view of the dark ages than that usually presented in our histories. Far from being a time of barbarism and decay, the early Middle Ages (the author balks at the term "dark ages") were a period of relative prosperity, equality, and good relations compared to what was to come.
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Survey! 3 Sep 2006
By T. O'Byrne - Published on
Chris Wickham explores the world of the early Middle Ages in a systematic way. Using literary and archaeological evidence, Wickham describes the changes which took place in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa after the fall of Rome. He maintains that despite the great political upheavals of the time, local continuity was a hallmark of this period. Economic decline and regrowth were connected with changes in the power and wealth of the aristocracy, who also exercised lesser or greater control over the land and the people.

While this massive piece of scholarship does not address cultural or intellectual history, it provides a very clear picture of the political and economic changes that transformed the former Roman Empire during the years 400-800 A.D. The writing is lively and easy to read, and the work is well organized. The full index and large bibliography as well as the broad range of topics covered make this book an indispensible reference tool for anyone studying Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages.
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In depth analysis, but heavy going 28 Jan 2009
By Norman Siebrasse - Published on
I completely agree with the reviewers who call this "a tremendous piece of scholarship" and "a monumental review." But beware - it is very heavy going. This is not because it is poorly written. On the contrary, given the density of information and depth of analysis, it is very well written. But Wickham deals extremely carefully with a great mass of material, and the result, while insightful and thorough, is very difficult to digest. As a couple of examples for comparison, I found Marc Bloch's "Feudal Society" and Pirenne's "Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe" both much easier to read.

It's difficult to rate this book. If you are looking for scholarship, it is 5 stars. If you are looking for a readable overview, it's more like 2 stars. I notice that one reviewer listed Peter Heather's "Fall of the Roman Empire" along with this as one of three must have books on the period. To me, the books were completely different. Heather's book was extremely readable, but the analysis was not not at the forefront. I wasn't particularly convinced by Heather's thesis, but more to the point, you can pretty much ignore the analysis if you just want a narrative history. With Wickham's book, each page carefully marshalls evidence and inference - you may agree or disagree, but you can't take this book lightly. That may be for better or for worse, depending on what you are looking for.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Survey Which Shows Why Generalizations Don't Work for This Period 8 Dec 2008
By Curt Emanuel - Published on
This is a tremendous piece of scholarship. I won't even try to summarize the content - in a work of over 800 pages of text, this is impossible. Wickham takes the geographic regions which were part of, or heavily influenced by, the Roman Empire and examines how they evolved and developed, in multiple aspects, from the beginning of the 5th to the end of the 8th century. The book is divided into 12 chapters, focusing on four major subject areas; States, Aristocratic power-structures, Peasantries, and Networks. For each topic he divides the Post-Roman world into 10 distinct geographic regions and examines each individually. These regions are; North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Byzantium, Spain, Central and Southern Gaul, Northern Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and Denmark. In some chapters he will examine regions together when development patterns are similar; most frequently combining Britain, Ireland and Denmark; however for the most part each of these 10 regions receives its own attention.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it able to maintain my interest and more readable than I anticipated. Each topical chapter is 60-100 pages long, which would be tedious, however when 8-15 pages are devoted to a given geographic region for each topic, it's much easier to work through.

There are several ways in which this book is truly outstanding. First is Wickham's use of sources. The book is heavily footnoted and he provides a great deal of evidence for most of his conclusions (I'll return to the exceptions in a moment). The sheer amount of referenced data is stunning and includes archaeology as well as written sources. He offers conjecture and hypothesis in some cases where there is not enough evidence to document a pattern of development. Most frequently this occurs for Britain, particularly in the chapter, "Peasants and Local Societies" where Wickham develops an entire hypothetical society based on how he believes it is most likely that British peasant society was structured. While this is an exception to Wickham's usually strict use of evidentiary sources, he is very careful - explicitly so - to state that this is a hypothesis based on his educated opinion, not something which can be proven through sources. He does this in several parts of the book and he is always careful to state where he's offering something which he believes is not provable.

The second way in which this book excels is in its insistence on avoiding generalizations. Even when examining ten different geographic regions, he further discusses differences which occur within these regions. The overall impression is that in order to truly study medieval history, one must focus on smaller, regional areas and must, at all costs, avoid generalizing for all Post-Roman societies.

As for the information itself, it is an eye-opener. In the broadest sense, Wickham argues that the relative success of Post-Roman societies is strongly tied to how that society was structured within the Empire. Regions which were tied closely to Rome through the state, through taxation and commerce, were those most profoundly depressed in the Early Medieval Period while those which were largely agrarian and land-owning were less affected. In this way he shows that regions such as North Africa and the Spanish Coastal Regions were profoundly impacted while areas such as Gaul, (particularly in the North) and Egypt were less affected and in fact remained relatively wealthy through the Early Medieval Period. He utilizes a variety of topics to illustrate this including exchange networks, aristocratic wealth, societal urbanization and state-building.

I disagree with some of his views. He argues for a much greater level of peasant land-owning and wealth through this period. In and of itself this is supportable however at one point he argues that as aristocracies grew weaker and poorer, peasant society became wealthier because the aristocratic wealth must have been transferred to peasants. I am unconvinced by this. Societies have become poorer at all levels, from the wealthy to the poor, without this type of wealth transfer. During the American Great Depression, all levels of society were poorer than they were in the mid-1920's. The loss of wealth by the elite of that time was not transferred to the poor and middle class. I don't know that this didn't happen in the Medieval period, however I find this argument, in and of itself, unconvincing. While peasant society very likely became stronger in relative terms when compared to aristocracies, I am uncertain if this holds true when discussing absolute wealth.

Another argument he has put forward is that peasant families voluntarily reduced their reproduction rather than following Malthusian principles as a response to a poorer society. Again, this may have happened, as it did in the late Empire, however I am unconvinced. To be fair, in both of these cases he is careful to state these as beliefs which he cannot support based on the evidence. I find conjecture, when given with this caveat, perfectly acceptable.

I do have one substantial complaint; when discussing how society began to re-form around a strengthening aristocracy later in the period, he ignores what role the Church may have played. Certainly churches and monasteries became major landholders during the period covered and I have often seen it argued that the Church was one of the main institutions that helped society retain some semblance of structure. This is largely ignored, whether Wickham agrees with it, or has evidence to debunk it.

Even so, this is a monumental, wonderfully informative work. After reading this it is obvious why generalizations such as "society collapsed following the end of the Roman Empire" or, "the end of the Roman World was a transformation which resulted in little loss of wealth or societal structure" cannot be supported. Each of these statements is true - but only for specific regions, not for the entire Post-Roman World.

I highly recommend this book. I believe there is a new trilogy of survey works which anyone studying the Early Medieval Period should try to own; McCormick's "Origins of the European Economy", Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire" and Wickham. These three books have made great strides both in providing a great deal of information as well as studying Late Antiquity in such detail as to make shallow generalizations unnecessary.
30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Trend-setting 4 Mar 2007
By Khodadad REZAKHANI - Published on
Late Antiquity is still quite controversial. Its application, time boundaries, and geographic limits still a matter of debate. As such, theories about its true nature and its application to historical study is still undetermined and is being revised everyday.

This book, much like the book that landed 'Late Antiquity' as a free-standing period in English historical enquiry (Peter Brown's "The World of Late Antiquity") is a trend-setter. Wickham's excellent scholarship, plus the fact that he dares and explores new waters and concepts, is ground breaking and profound. This book is going to be the "Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World" of its generation and have many volumes written in "response" to it. A must have, no doubt about it, for anyone interested in the Late Antique and Early Medieval history, and a must read for anyone interested in pre-Industrial Revolution economic history, regardless of time and place!
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