9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2013
The six hundred years or so between the fall of Rome and the arrival of the Normans is at once the most fascinating and the least documented in our recorded history. Fleming manages to synthesise the standard written chronicles and other textual evidence with more up to date research (especially in the field of DNA) and archaeology. She gives probably the most convincing account of the economic downfall of 4th century Roman Britain that I've read, explaining why it went from prosperity to total collapse within the space of, at most, a couple of generations. For the first time I could visualise what life might have been like for someone whose grandparents had lived in a palatial villa, but who was now reduced to scratching a subsistence existence. Britons even, apparently, forgot how to make pots.
She's good on later events and trends, too: the development of a unified church (though there was no mention, unless I missed it, of the important Synod of Whitby), the incursions of the Vikings (not whitewashing them, as some historians have, to the extent that they're presented as peaceful traders who occasionally do a little rape and pillage on the side), the agricultural changes in the ninth and tenth centuries, and what all this meant for the average peasant - pushing home the message that the average peasant led a pretty miserable life, especially towards the end of the period. It's good to see so much archaeological evidence used as well.
The one issue I have is that the Migration Period, when 'Anglo-Saxon' settlers arrived, is not described quite so convincingly. Fleming would have it that they were all egalitarian peasants of similar status, who only later began to produce leaders, who then constructed their own origin myths and genealogies to justify their superior wealth and position. I'm not at all sure about this - after all, it takes energy, leadership and a lot of material resources to move yourself and others a couple of hundred miles over the sea in an open boat - and see no good reason why there should not have been individual chiefs who saw an opportunity in Britain and took advantage of it to bring their followers with them, and quite possibly in much greater numbers than she allows for. I once heard an expert on the period comment that if you ask a linguist how many Anglo-Saxons came over, they'll say it was in overwhelming numbers: if you ask a historian, they'll say it was considerable numbers: and if you ask an archaeologist, they'll say it was three men in a boat. And the almost complete eradication of the Brythonic language in favour of what was to become English is something that in my view she fails to explain convincingly. But these are comparatively minor points, and it's a book I much enjoyed reading.
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2011
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 August 2013
I was impressed with this book.
The author explained her approach at the outset so no-one buying it in a bookshop would have any excuse if they didn't like it (buying on-line has to have some drawbacks ...). I found the emphasis on non-textual sources very illuminating and, while inevitably much is speculation, for me this put a new light on Saxon England. At one point I was getting a bit impatient with the discussion of social hierarchy and wanted to know more about the economics behind it, but that was just about righted in later chapters about accumulating surpluses. That said, I would like somemone to update MM Postan's excellent 'Medieval Economy and Society' (HH Hallam's 'Rural England' just didn't do it for me - it reads like a spreadsheet with a few short introductory essays).
Those who want to read about kings and queens and nobles can choose another book - the fact that this isn't a straight narrative history can't be held against it given that 1) it doesn't set out to be that and 2) what it does it does well.
After this, I've moved onto Marc Morris' 'The Norman Conquest', and while that's much more fun (I've not finished it), I still appreciate Ms Fleming's work, even if it needs rather closer reading (and if her other 2 books were more affordable, I'd buy them).
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 5 November 2013
This is a very thorough account focusing on the material evidence of how people in different ethnic groups and social classes lived between the Roman withdrawal and the Norman Conquest. There are copious references to archaeological research, showing what people ate, what diseases and injuries they suffered, how long they could expect to live, and so on. The author is immensely knowledgable, but writes in a clear, approachable style.
The archaelogical evidence that she discusses agrees with the genetic evidence discussed in Stephen Oppenheimer's The Origins of the British, showing that there was no large scale replacement of "Celts" by "Anglo-Saxons". The transformation from "British" to "English" was mostly a spread of a culture, not a movement of peoples. The near extermination of the Britons by the Anglo-Saxons was a myth, perpetuated by Dark Age "historians" for their own polemical purposes, and repeated by the Victorians because it confirmed their racial analysis of history.
The drawback of this book is that it's a bit one-dimensional. Perhaps because material evidence is her speciality, the author takes a thoroughly "materialistic" view of the peoples' motivations. In the view of the author, no one in the Dark Ages and Anglo-Saxon period seems to have any motivation other than to enhance their own social status and material wealth. Related to this is another flaw, namely that when the author tries to empathise with the people of those days, especially in her last chapter, she seems to do so from her own perspective as a 21st Century middle class American. She seems to assume that due to their poor diet, parasitic infections, high infant mortality and short life expectancy, the people would have been as miserable as their modern descendants would be if we suddenly found ourselves afflicted with these problems. I think this is incorrect, because happiness is more about how we compare ourselves with other people whose lives we are familiar with. For instance, the loss of a child is always tragic, but it must surely feel a great deal more tragic in a society where everyone else's children are alive and healthy. Likewise, being the only person whom you know who has a tapeworm is probably a lot worse than living in a society where even Kings have tapeworms.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2015
Considering the need to rely at times on mainly archaeological evidence, Fleming does an excellent job in making this an entirely readable book. Some of the negative reviews are clearly posted by close-minded people of the 'it's-political-correctness-gone-mad' mentality. Two of the one-star reviews seem to think she is portraying the 5th-7th centuries as some sort of socialist paradise. Fleming does no such thing, and makes it quite clear that though in a sense Britons have never had more freedom (they lived truly anarchic lives) she also is at pains to state just how squalid their existence was, and how Southern Britain in many ways regressed after the Roman withdrawal. Well worth reading for those who like to leave their 21st century political views at the door.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2012
The author is very up-front about not wishing to merely re-hash other works covering a similar period, but rather aiming for a different approach. In some ways this succeeds and her emphasis on portraying the lives and issues of the day offer interesting insights, notably on the surviving pockets of Roman culture in the ruin of the post-Roman period. Sometimes this approach can be so speculative that one feels it has little substance, and at such points the narrative becomes rather unravelled. She uses a nice literary style, and is unafraid of more ambitious words; a refreshing change in an era of 3 word sentances and no word more than 2 sylables. To some extent the 3 star may be a trifle low because, as she points out, the written evidence is so scant for much of this era. I would have appreciated some illustrations or photographs, of burial items for example, and in view of the intent to provide a more 3 dimensional narrative this did seem a puzzling omission. Overall I felt it was a very readable and informative insight into the period covered.
on 10 September 2014
The book presents an insightful account of the Anglo-Saxon period through to the Norman Conquest, based on both conventional historical sources and recent archaeology, to explain the transition of Roman Britain through social and cultural assimilation of new immigrants with the existing 'celtic' population via the spread of Christianity, to eventually produce the new land of England (the main focus of this text) from the formation and eventual amalgamation of the various early Kingdoms. However still being dependent on scant historical records, the scale of new settlement and complete 'anglicisation' of the countryside unfortunately remains inconclusive on this fundamental point. In this latter respect the indigenous Britons may have been a pre Roman Germanic-speaking people residing alongside the Welsh, faced with the 5th century AD incursions of Saxons, Angles and other groups of settlers. See http://fchknols.wordpress.com
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2014
This is the best evocation I have read about life in Britain in the period covered. It is the first time I have come across a general history which marries texts, academic study and the results of the latest archaeology so thoroughly.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 26 August 2014
A very solid work of historical analysis. A period in history that is now getting the attention it deserves.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2012
There has been plenty of rubbish written about this book. It is also clear some of the reviewers almost certainly have not read the book. Its only real failing is in its title, which should be England After Rome. Even then the book only really covers eastern 'Anglo-Saxon' lands, with the West, Wales and Scotland almost completely excluded from analysis.
The book covers subjects such as burial goods, farming and fashion. Those looking for evidence for King Arthur or Anglo-Saxon invasions will be disappointed.
What you get are reasonable conclusions based on archaeological evidence only. These conclusions may be unpalatable to some, hence the bad reviews, but certainly more persuasive than some other books on the subject.