Throw­ing light on Dark Ages

Jonathan Sump­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THIS out­stand­ing book cov­ers what used to be called the Dark Ages. Pub­lish­ers rarely speak of the Dark Ages now. It does not sell copies. But the ti­tle still en­cap­su­lates the con­ven­tional view of the pe­riod: a civilised em­pire de­stroyed by bar­bar­ians and re­placed by a world of an­ar­chy and su­per­sti­tion, a uni­ver­sal monar­chy su­per­seded by a mo­saic of statelets ruled by men with un­pro­nounce­able names, long hair and un­couth habits, an age of grim ig­no­rance with few lit­er­ary or ad­min­is­tra­tive sources and those re­flect­ing the en­closed prej­u­dices of monks and priests. Ge­of­frey of Mon­mouth and Ed­ward Burne-Jones are the only peo­ple who ever in­jected a touch of ro­mance into this bleak pic­ture.

Wick­ham, pro­fes­sor of me­dieval his­tory at Ox­ford, is no ro­man­tic. But he has set out to ad­dress some of the largest and most com­pelling ques­tions about Europe’s early his­tory. Did the bar­bar­ian in­va­sions re­ally de­stroy the civil­i­sa­tion of Rome in the West? How far did the old con­ven­tions and so­cial bonds, which marked the com­mu­ni­ties of the an­cient world, per­sist into the new po­lit­i­cal world of the mid­dle ages? Was Charle­magne re­ally a late Ro­man ruler grap­pling with the prob­lems of a poorer and less sta­ble con­ti­nent? Or was the el­e­gant Latin of his doc­u­ments and the am­bi­tious clas­si­cism of his build­ings just a pre­ten­tious ve­neer?

Th­ese are old ques­tions. Some of Wick­ham’s in­sights are shared with Ed­ward Gib­bon, who first asked them more than two cen­turies ago. But no one else has com­bined the same chrono­log­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal sweep with Wick­ham’s broad range of source ma­te­rial and un­lim­ited cu­rios­ity. Let­ters, chron­i­cles, po­etry, saints’ lives and mir­a­cle sto­ries, in­scrip­tions and im­ages are all pressed into ser­vice. Above all Wick­ham has made ex­cel­lent use of the mass of in­for­ma­tion that has been made avail­able in the past half cen­tury by arche­ol­o­gists. The re­sult is a con­vinc­ing pic­ture of an ar­cane world.

Wick­ham is by in­stinct a grad­u­al­ist, and in this he is surely right. Short of geno­cide and to­tal phys­i­cal de­struc­tion, such as the Ro­mans in­flicted on Carthage, great civil­i­sa­tions are never rooted out in one go. But if the cul­ture and val­ues of Rome sur­vived the bar­bar­ian in­va­sions, the em­pire’s eco­nomic foun­da­tions were shat­tered.

The pros­per­ity of the late Ro­man world had de­pended mainly on the em­pire’s con­trol over the whole of the Mediter­ranean basin. Its eco­nomic pow­er­house was Egypt, and its main sources of grain and oil were the African prov­inces roughly cor­re­spond­ing to mod­ern Libya, Tu­nisia and Al­ge­ria.

The con­quest of the west­ern Mediter­ranean by the Van­dals in the fifth cen­tury, and then of the whole north African shore by the Arabs two cen­turies later, was an eco­nomic catas­tro­phe for the em­pire’s Euro­pean prov­inces. The huge tax pay­ments of the African prov­inces, gen­er­ally paid in grain and used to feed the swollen cities of Europe, came to an abrupt end. The pop­u­la­tions of Rome and Con­stantino­ple fell to a frac­tion of their for­mer num­bers.

The same phe­nom­e­non must have been ex­pe­ri­enced, on a less dra­matic scale, by most of the main Euro­pean cities of the em­pire.

The ef­fect of th­ese events would be felt for many cen­turies. Ro­man civil­i­sa­tion had above all been ur­ban civil­i­sa­tion. But the world cities of the new or­der would be Bagh­dad, Da­m­as­cus, Cairo, Is­lamic Cor­dova and Chris­tian Con­stantino­ple. Latin Europe was an es­sen­tially ru­ral and palace-based civil­i­sa­tion, which had no cities to chal­lenge th­ese places un­til the rise of Paris in the 13th cen­tury.

The gov­ern­ment of the Ro­man Em­pire had been sup­ported by a large civil ser­vice, and an even larger army, both sus­tained by a per­va­sive sys­tem of tax­a­tion.

With the with­er­ing of the crossMediter­ranean trade, the sur­pluses on which all this had de­pended van­ished. In the new or­der,

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