Saturday, December 5, 2009

From Barbarians to Angels

Anthropologist Peter Wells From Barbarians to Angels: the Dark Ages Reconsidered seeks to rehabilitate the Dark Ages as a period of high cultural activity without major declines in population, urban life or economic activity, basing his analysis on the archaeological evidence.

This very much contrasts both with the traditional view and with recent works by Heather and Ward-Perkins. His claim that there is no evidence of urban decline flatly contradicts the evidence presented by Hodges & Whitehouse while the lack of economic (particularly trade) decline is contradicted by the evidence on shipwrecks in the Western Mediterranean assembled by Keith Hopkins. As well as ice-core data on levels of metal pollution (pdf).

In a sense, Wells is advancing an even stronger version of the Pirenne thesis. Neither the barbarian invasions nor the Arab conquest caused major economic disruptions or cultural decline.

While Wells presents a considerable amount of fascinating detail (particularly his chapter on London) I am not convinced. Too often he explains away the evidence rather than explaining it.
Wells notes the recruiting of Germans into the Late Roman Army (p.20) as seeming odd to us, but leaves this striking fact hanging. He notes the disappearance of the Roman Army from Western Europe – the defeat of the Huns as part of a coalition force being its last major appearance (p.26), but really does not give an account for why Roman rule decayed. He notes the lack of literacy among invading groups (p.28) and argues, particularly on the basis of the DNA evidence, for the barbarian invasions to be more conquest by elite groups of warriors than significant population replacement (Pp 31ff): something fairly well accepted nowadays.

Wells argues that the Roman Empire did not “fall” in any but the most superficial sense: apart from the change in rulership, things went on much as before. In particular, he denies that there was significant decline in urban centres.

He admits that we see, from the C3rd, dismantling of former public and religious building to put walls around cities (notably London, to whose archaeology he devotes a chapter) and argues that the layer of “dark earth” in Late Roman and early Dark Age cities was not reversion to agricultural use but increased use of wattle & daub construction (Pp 112ff).

This he sees as changed “needs” (p.113), a sign of changes in cultural preferences (p.118). This is culture as the last refuge of the analytically bereft: not explaining the evidence but explaining it away.

Wells makes much of the new plough (Pp 10-11, 130ff), which greatly increased the circulation of nutrients in the soil, and the horse collar, which allowed much more efficient use of horses in agriculture, as showing the technological dynamism of the so-called Dark Ages.

Wells also makes much of the extent of trade goods found in archaeological sites. One notices, however, that the trade goods in question are either small, easily transportable or weapons (particularly swords). He easily demonstrates there were extensive trade – particularly in water-accessible areas outside the former Roman empire. This is very far from demonstrating that trade in the former lands of the Empire was at a comparable level to that it was at the height of the Empire.

Wells certainly demonstrates there was trade, cultural activity, increased technological dynamism and continued use of urban centres. He is much less persuasive in claiming that there was no significant decline with the collapse of the Western Empire.

Wells dismisses the written chronicles’ laments about the barbarian invasions and the collapse of Roman rule as just sentimental attachment to things Roman: which is a fundamentally suspect way of dealing with evidence. Particularly given he regularly refers to the lack of written evidence during the subsequent period.

The following picture is also compatible with the evidence he presents. Rome suffers a major demographic shock with the Antonine plagues (probably smallpox) that killed perhaps a quarter of the population. Malaria also spreads through previously densely populated areas of Italy. The weather starts getting colder, reducing agricultural productivity. The Western Empire is disrupted by a series of barbarian invasions while the Eastern Empire is confronted by a resurgent Sassanid Persia, so depleted resources have to be channelled into protection (hence wall building and simpler house construction). Trade is undermined, leaving to some loss in access to economies of scale.

The effect is temporary in the Eastern Empire, which is richer, more populous and less vulnerable geographically. Not so in the Western Empire, which confronts Germanic barbarians whose organisational and technological capacities are improved by contact with the Empire. The Western Empire is increasingly disrupted by barbarian invasions, making it less and less able to defend itself. Protection costs rise, trade falls further. There is a tipping point (the loss of Africa, the last un-pillaged revenue source, to the Vandals), and the Empire collapses.

With the Imperial collapse comes a collapse in mass trade—the “loss of comfort” as Ward-Perkins calls it. Population falls dramatically, particularly in urban centres, as people are thrown back on local resources and skills for everything other than small, easily transportable goods.

In this situation, labour now becomes relatively scarce. The shock and loss of central control also frees up thinking and possibilities. The new plough and horse collar allow fewer peasants to support relatively more warriors (straightforward capital substitution for scarce labour). There is increased access to protein (fewer people means more land per person to grow crops, graze animals and to hunt) leading to increases in body size (Pp 139-40). As the new rulerships consolidate and the precious metals and jewellery of a looted Empire circulate, the undisrupted trade networks of Germanic Europe expand. Population starts growing. Urban centres continue at various levels: there are even some new ones where previous ones either had not existed or no longer operated as effective competitors. Ireland—not subject to disruption—becomes a major cultural and intellectual nexus through the monasteries.

With the consolidation of Charlemagne’s empire comes increased trade and a surplus that can be channelled into increased cultural activity. So we get the Carolingian renaissance (until the collapse of Carolingian rule and the Norse incursions knock things down again: when the development of knightly society begins to provide a basis of trade to recover, leading to the C12th renaissance).

So, yes, the Dark Ages did see technological innovation, there was trade, there was cultural activity, it was not all chaos and violence. But what Wells sees as signs of continuity were in fact signs of recovery: indeed, make much more sense as such.

There is a considerable amount of useful information and detail in From Barbarians to Angels, but Wells’s attempt to resuscitate an even more dramatic version of the Pirenne thesis is not persuasive. There is too little comparative analysis and too much is left hanging.

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