So Yale has these online courses, right, and a while back I listened to their history of the early middle ages course. It’s a great lecture series/podcast, and I recommend it highly. My intention at first was to also read all the texts assigned in the syllabus, but a few pages into St. Augustine I decided that one of the benefits of not actually being enrolled in the course was that I could dispense with even the pretense of reading the really tedious stuff.
But I did still want to read the assigned overview text, Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000, and so I did, although it took me a bit longer than I had planned, and involved a few breaks.
So the thing about this is, it’s an academic history, not a popular one. That means that the history is rigorous and up-to-date and well-sourced; it also means that rather than just spinning you a good yarn, Wickham is going to tell you how we know things. An example:
Our evidence for commerce outside the capital, also largely archaeological, both mirrors this picture and nuances it. The seventh century saw the abrupt end of the Aegean’s main industrial tableware production, Phocaean Red Slip ware, and its more local imitations; painted wares of reasonable quality sometimes replaced it (for example in Crete), but their distribution was very localized, and in some places (notably in inland Greece) all we find is handmade pottery, indicating the end of professional production. Amphora production, for oil and wine, also localized and simplified; the standardized Aegean globular amphora, LRA 2, was replaced by a variety of related but more local types. These developments, into the eighth century, imply a breakdown in demand for goods, and thus the weakening of concentrations of wealth, whether public or private.
So, you know, that’s cool. That’s what an academic history absolutely should be, talking about how we know things, the limits of our knowledge, the types of evidence available and what inferences can be drawn from that. To a large degree I not only respect that, but find it interesting.
And yet… as someone who’s reading for fun, and who entertains no notion of becoming a professional historian, I can’t deny that I would have enjoyed the book more if it had tilted a bit more toward the broad sweeping narrative and a bit less toward the fine details of pottery production and distribution. But to some extent the lack of a big sweeping narrative and broad points is intentional. Wickham explains:
This book has argued that not only the early Middle Ages as a whole, but every large- and small-scale society which existed during it, needs to be analysed in its own terms, and without hindsight. … I have tried consistently to stress the difference of local experience. I have compared rather than generalized, throughout the book, in order to respect those differences, and to make sense of them.
Which again, that’s cool. I think he makes a strong case in the book that his approach is correct on the merits, that Carolingian France isn’t just a more southerly England, a northerly Italy, or a westerly Byzantium, that the post-Roman societies developed in their own unique and local ways. And yet, again, I find myself wanting that larger narrative, wanting him to maybe gloss over some of the uniqueness of, say, Denmark and just kind of give me a broad handwave of the common threads that emerge if you don’t look too closely.
This sounds like a lot of complaining on my part, but here’s the thing: I did finish this book. Because in the end, yeah, it’s a bit on the dry side; yeah, it gets into the weeds a lot; but it’s also rich with information. And if I might more enjoy a looser, less rigorous history of the period, at some level I actually do want to read a real history, one that is going to dispense with popularizing simplifications and trust its audience to give enough of a damn to slog through the complexities, the evidence, the historiography.
So, if that’s what you’re looking for, this is recommended. But if you’d rather have the more accessible history, then your droids are in another castle.