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Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 Paperback – 30 Nov 2006
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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)
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. See all Product description
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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. Much of this is due to reptition or reassessment which, while useful to somene only reading the odd chapter, is a little tiresome for the brave reader attempting the whole book.
In general though, while not a book for absolute newcomers to the topic or the fainthearted, Wickham's achievment deserves to be heartily applauded.
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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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.
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.