Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages by Chris Wickham

Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

(Viking: 2009) 672 pages
Verdict?: Sprawling, interesting but diffuse 4/5.

Chichele Professor of Medieval History at Oxford Chris Wickham's new addition to the Penguin History of Europe series is published in the non-American English speaking world under the rather blander title The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. Apart from sounding stodgier, this version of the subtitle is actually slightly misleading, because Wickham does not focus purely or even mainly on Europe at all. He gives almost equal footing in his 650+ page volume to all three of the civilisations that can be said to have inherited from Rome: western Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Ummayad and 'Abbasid Caliphates. So apart from making the book sound a little more enticing (and perhaps slightly more exciting than it actually is), the American subtitle, "Illuminating the Dark Ages", is also rather more accurate.

The book follows and parallels Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 and tackles many of the same themes in much the same way. James J O'Donnell was heavily influenced by Wickham's analysis when writing his The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History, to the extent that he states in the chapter that introduces the third part of his book "I follow and explore [Wickham's] interpretation" (p. 405, n. 1). His praise is quite fulsome in his "Further Reading" section at the end of his study:

The reader with more patience for detail and less need for narrative should read Chris Wickham, Framing the Middle Ages (2005), a masterpiece of learning and judgement. A provost sometimes meets well-wishers who venture to doubt that humanists are engaged in what can truly be called research. I hand them Wickham's book.
(O'Donnell, p. 409)

This is high praise and, if the newer work is anything to go by, it seems well-deserved. Wickham is certainly very much a researcher and a careful practitioner of the difficult art of distilling useful conclusions from a broad swathe of disparate and often fragmentary points of data. Something of his method can be gleaned from the way he presents his conclusions: slowly, carefully, painstakingly and, as O'Donnell says, with rather more detail than narrative. I can see why O'Donnell admires Wickham and I share his admiration. True, Wickham is certainly no O'Donnell when it comes to telling a lively story. But when it comes to presenting a wide canvas picture of of a period in which it is all too easy to fall into generalisations rather than solid conclusions, Wickham is, as O'Donnell acknowledges, the master.

Continuity or Catastrophe? - Take 2

Given the temporal parameters of the book, AD 400-1000, it is inevitable that Wickham presents his take on the vexed question of the Fall of the Western Empire and plants a flag somewhere in the "continuity vs catastrophe" debate. The theme of "the inheritance of Rome" could seem to indicate an inclination towards the "continuity" side, but Wickham's view is long and so his position is nuanced.

In discussing the collapse and fragmentation of the Western Empire, Wickham acknowledges that the traditional catastrophist view of an ailing Empire falling to the overwhelming military strength of barbarian savages is clearly wrong and fully accepts that the "barbarians" were, in many important respects, actually very "Roman". But he notes:

This does not lessen the simple point that the Roman empire in the west was replaced by a set of independent kingdoms which did not make claims to imperial legitimacy ... it does force us to ask why each of these kingdoms could not have just reproduced the Roman state in miniature, maintaining structural continuities that could, in principle, have been reunited later, by Justinian, for example. For the fact is that most of them did not do so.
(Wickham, p. 95)

He goes on to note the archaeological evidence of decline; evidence of more localised exchange, simpler buildings and a corresponding simplification of judicial and fiscal systems. This is marked north of the Loire as early as the first half of the Fifth Century and across the northern Mediterranean as well by the Sixth Century. Of course, O'Donnell would attribute the latter to Justinian's wasteful and destructive wars of "reconquest" but Wickham takes a broader and far more economic perspective and attributes the changes substantially to two themes that will repeat themselves through his long book over and over again - taxes and land.

Death and Taxes. And Land.

In the amusing and slightly catty final chapter to his The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins notes ruefully that it is hard to get history students to study economic history at all, despite its vital importance to this period. "In Oxford, at least," he laments, "the word 'economy' is the kiss of death to an undergraduate history course" (Ward-Perkins, p. 179). Economic history is, however, front and centre in Wickham's work and the reader needs to pay close attention to his analysis, often over many pages or whole chapters. This is because land and taxes provide the key to understanding how and why we get from the Rome of the early Fifth Century - spanning from Britain to the Fertile Crescent with a network of political and economic structures - to the three worlds of the early Eleventh Century, Muslim, Byzantine and Feudal European, that Wickham details.

The story he tells is of three kinds of fragmentation playing out in three different ways. In the Byzantine world the Roman taxation structure survives, though it goes into a severe decline in the Ninth Century only to to recover, if in a slightly more localised form. In the process the Byzantine Empire undergoes a degree of the militarisation of the aristocracy and ruling strata that we see in the West, but without the same degree of political fragmentation and localisation of power. In the Muslim world the Arab conquerors inherit Roman and Persian taxation infrastructures intact and make good use of them. These taxes sustain army garrisons across the Caliphate and, to a large extent, keep the military and the civil administration fairly separate for most of our period. Fragmentation, when it comes, is along sectarian and ethnic-cultural lines and the largely tax-based systems survive it more or less intact.

Western Europe, however, is different. There the Roman tax system declined rapidly as the source of economic security and therefore power increasingly became the ownership of land:

As noted earlier, the 'barbarian' armies that took over provinces had different aims from the Roman armies that seized power for their generals in previous centuries. They wanted to settle back on the land, as their ancestors had done, before the generation or so of intermittent movement and conquest. .... Beginning in the Fifth Century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by rents from private landowning.
(Wickham, p. 102)

So the drift from a tax-based military system to a land-sustained one had begun long before the fall of Rome; probably driven by the Western Empire's relative poverty and a need to maintain a very large and expensive army. This drift escalated with the domination of the 'barbarian' rulers and their military elites, for whom land-ownership was a key aim. Wickham then details a process by which this trend began to escalate and dominate. Our records of the Ostrogothic and Visigothic kingdoms contain many references to disputes over land and records of citizens objecting to land being appropriated by Gothic lords and their private armed retinues, often by force. Theodoric the Great worked to restrain some of his powerful lords in this respect, but the trend was clear: those who had land had power and those who had power had the means to appropriate more land. As Wickham notes, by the late Merovingian Period this trend meant that the great counts of the now sprawling Frankish kingdom were the largest landowners in Europe since the height of the Empire.

But this trend also saw the breakdown of the Roman taxation system in Europe, in a way that it did not totally collapse in Byzantium or the Caliphate. With it went the networks and systems of collection and administration and so also the sinews of long-distance commerce. Production became increasingly localised, the shared knowledge of the engineering and construction of large scale buildings declined and Europe saw a simplification of its material culture generally. Traditionalists have seen this simply as "barbarism", attributed it to a "coarsening of the human spirit" and various other simplistic causes (corruption, the Church, "savagery") and lamented it as evidence of "a Dark Age". Wickham shows that it was simply, as with the parallel though differing changes in Byzantium and the Caliphate, a response to a series of economic and military changes.

One of the most marked of the changes in question is the militarisation of the aristocracy and the system of civil administration. Roman government and the Roman aristocracy had been fundamentally civilian. A Roman politician usually did his time in the army as part of the cursus honorum, but the civil administration was for the most part divorced from the military. This included the important networks of aristocratic patronage, generous private donations of time and money for the public good and sponsorship of the arts, architecture and religion. The military played its role in politics and this was an increasingly assertive role as time went on, but it never wholly dominated the aristocracy and civil administration.

Scholars of the Sword

With the shift from a tax-based military to a land-based one in the Fifth to Seventh Centuries, this changed completely. Now the aristocrats who owned the land derived power directly from the military retinues they could sustain from it. The military - the great land-owning lords who came together to form the martial strength of the kingdom - were also the aristocrats who ruled the kingdom itself. Rulership, land-ownership and military strength all became entwined. Aristocrats were still administrators and local rulers, with a dominant aristocrat to whom they paid varying degrees of due respect (eg the Frankish king/emperor or the local Anglo-Saxon overlord), but they were also warlords and leaders of an increasingly elite and aristocratic army. Whereas Roman aristocrats vied with each other in accomplishments in the arts or sponsorship of fine buildings, post-Roman aristocrats vied with each other in the appropriation of land to support their military power and the exercise of that power in the chess game of supremacy.

By the Carolingian Period the great counts of Frankia dominated and tightly administered a territory almost the size of the old Western Empire. And this was no gaggle of grunting barbarian warlords - these men were intelligent, literate, versed in law and politics and capable of ruling huge swathes of often widely separated units of land. But the game they played required them to be fluent in cavalry tactics and swordplay rather than Virgil and their textual literacy (which they clearly maintained, unlike most of their feudal successors) was turned to the administration of the Empire of Charlemagne and, to a lesser extent, contemplation of the afterlife.

This system of land-based civil and military power had great strengths, as the rise of the Franks and the coalescence of England shows. But it had attendant weaknesses. When the dominant aristocrat's power slipped, the chess game for supremacy became more intense and the localisation of power accelerated. Counts who could dominate large territories before now had to reward state service by gifts of land; something which eventually became buying loyalty. This process led to a corresponding fragmentation of power and an increasing localisation of dominance. By the end of Wickham's period we see this localisation taking on various forms but with consistent results: a militarisation of the landscape in the face of external threats (eg Vikings) and an increasing imposition of duties on the formerly autonomous peasantry to sustain local defence, castle-building and petty wars. The result was the "feudal revolution", which can be said to mark the real end of the "inheritance of Rome" and the beginning of a new world in Europe.

Wickham's thesis is strong and well supported and it strikes an interesting stance in the catastrophe vs continuity debate. There clearly was great continuity, but similarly great change as well. By contrasting the Caliphate, Byzantium and the (largely Frankish) West, he shows that these changes were driven by a nexus of economic and politico-military factors. The breadth of the scope of his book is therefore its key strength - it would be impossible to make his case and make it in any kind of detail without careful examination of the ways the "inheritance of Rome" played out elsewhere in this period or without tracing these dynamics over six long and tumultuous centuries.

Narrative and Detail

In a sense, however, this same breadth is also the book's weakness. Tracing these complex inter-relations of economics, political structures, administrative structures and external pressures over six hundred years in a book of over six hundred pages is a massive undertaking. And Wickham does it well, with a measured, methodical, careful pace, hedged with appropriate caveats and cautions about the nature of our sources and so on. But six hundred pages of detail-rich sentences and caution, presented at a methodical pace can make for hard work for the reader.

The Times Literary Supplement said of his earlier work "there is hardly a page of Framing the Early Middle Ages which a newcomer to the period would not find accessible, indeed warmly welcoming". The same claim could be made of this book - it is generally accessible - but the newcomer in question would definitely need some stamina and would need their wits about them as well. Wickham is an writer who can pile on detailed evidence for five, ten or fifteen pages at a stretch before finally turning back to delineate a (cautious) answer to a question he may have asked the reader to ponder three-quarters of a chapter earlier. Accessible, yes - but only for a newcomer who is prepared to work. I suspect that as a lecturer Wickham does not suffer slackers and crammers gladly.

Earlier I quoted O'Donnell describe Wickham's writing as suited to "the reader with more patience for detail and less need for narrative". He was not damning Wickham with faint praise. But the sheer scale of his undertaking means that Wickham has to skate past some very tantalising potential narrative to avoid missing some of the more important detail. Which led me to feel at times that there was the potential for about five other, very different and much more vivid books in Wickham's work. As good as his book is, it did seem a pity that he could not pause to give us more of some of the stories he touches on, such as the Ummayad vizier who ended up dying in an elaborate torture machine of his own devising or the Frankish princess accused of incest, sodomy and infanticide (of the baby born, rather improbably, as the result of incestuous sodomy, no less!) Coming after reading O'Donnell's rather American racy story-telling with its provocatively bold conclusions, Wickham's methodical caution came across as very English by contrast.

This is, however, a fine book and one which should stand as a foundational textbook for this period for some time to come. It might be nice if one day Mr Wickham could let his hair down a little and write something a bit more like the anecdotal vignettes with which he begins each chapter. I suspect he has some good narrative history in him as well, though I am grateful for the books he has written so far.

1 comment:

Humphrey said...

In his review Dominic Sandbrook said:

'I loved, for example, the Irish king’s timetable, which dictated that Sunday was for drinking ale, Monday for judgment, Tuesday for board games, Wednesday for hunting, Thursday for sex, and so on.'

Now that's my kind of schedule.