Monday, November 16, 2009

Early Medieval Europe

Roger Collins’ Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000 is a fine narrative history of the transition from late antiquity to the medieval. I enjoyed the intelligent scepticism about the available written sources and the way Collins analysed historical actors in terms of the problems actually facing them (rather than some teleological notion of how they “should” have acted or be seen to have acted). Found the lack of consideration of the underlying structures of (changing) societies a bit frustrating, though I realise there are major evidence difficulties. Still, there seemed to be an underlying story just out of reach.

Collins sees the central drama of the period, what he calls the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, as mainly consisting in the disappearance of the first the Western Roman Army, and then the capping Imperial authority, as result of various choices made by said authority under mounting military pressure, with most of the underlying structures remaining. There is much to be said for this characterisation, though the last bit is the most dubious. Moreover, the evidence of a long-term demographic and economic decline extending from about 300AD to about 750AD suggests that these processes were themselves the results of deeper underlying causes (which they may, of course, have then aggravated). Similarly, Collins seems a little over-impressed by the survival of the Eastern Roman Empire (p.98). Yes, that state did survive for another 1000 years, but it also lost half its own territory in the period 650-710AD.

Which is not to say it is other than a useful and informative book. The political and military struggles of the period are laid out in a clear narrative, particularly the rise and decline of the Carolingian empire, and there is plenty of information to assist in building a better sense of the period.

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