Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Framing the Early Middle Ages (2007)

Framing the Early Middle Ages
Written By: Dominic Alexander
Date: September 2007
Published In LSHG Newsletter  Issue 29: Autumn 2007 

Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 Chris Wickham Oxford University Press 2005 990pp. ISBN 978-0199212965

The centuries between 400 and 800 are exceptionally difficult and tantalising, with a fragmentary evidence base that has led to many wildly differing interpretations of political, property and social structures, particularly in Western Europe. Chris Wickham has succeeded in presenting a highly compelling characterisation of post-Roman societies. His project of ‘framing’ the period is to lay a solid basis of understanding of the economic and property structures of these societies, through a comparative assessment of the evidence, written and archaeological, from Ireland to Egypt, Anatolia to Mauretania. The book is broken up into sections on states, aristocracies, peasantries and finally systems of exchange. The comparative approach produces great dividends in highlighting the patterns that remained in some regions, and what was thus clearly lost in others.

State, aristocracy and bulk exchange remained in the East, but became regionalised, where in the west various degrees of collapse clearly did take place. Wickham therefore, while giving due weight to arguments for continuity with the Roman period, does not let us imagine that the Roman world somehow remained intact into the seventh or eighth centuries. The archaeological evidence for Britain in comparison with elsewhere certainly lays to rest any notion that any large scale political units remained by the middle of the fifth century. His characterisation of the collapse of class society into tribal structures in Britain is particularly strengthened by comparison with parts of western North Africa, where from different starting points, a similar process was played out.

The strength of Wickham’s ‘frame’ is to lay out clearly the interpretative problem of the early Middle Ages. The collapse of the Roman Empire had left a mosaic of different regional and even local responses, with the peasantry often emerging with considerably fewer economic obligations to aristocracies or states, and the latter with commensurately less secure coercive power. Indeed, in some areas, the Asturias in Spain, Britain on a larger scale, and in smaller ‘leopard spots’ across Europe, society had returned to a ‘peasant mode of production’.

The history of the sixth to tenth centuries is thus clarified as a process of the rebuilding of aristocratic power, and therefore the re-subjection of peasantries to new structures of exploitation. In some societies, Ireland and Denmark, which had lain outside the Roman sphere, Wickham convincingly outlines the different cases for the fitful development of the property structures that could form the basis for class societies, and aristocracies, to emerge.

Wickham does not see a fundamental distinction of type between the mode of production of the Roman Empire and the various feudalisms that emerged from it, arguing that tribute, tax and rent are too mutable to provide the basis for fundamentally different economic structures. Indeed, for seventh-century England, it is not possible at all to define the renders made to kings, churches and aristocrats as clearly tax, tribute or rent. Difficult questions still remain however. It is easy to see in Mauretania how the collapse of the Roman system allowed the re-emergence of tribal structures that had not entirely been lost, but less easy to see why Roman Britain should suffer such a catastrophic collapse, while northern Francia apparently retained enough of a stable basis for aristocratic property and economic complexity to survive. The reasons for the different fates of the east and west are therefore also not fully resolved. This is not to say that Wickham does not provide important arguments towards these problems. Despite the modest claim of the introduction, that the book is not concerned to produce a new synthesis, it does represent something impressively close to that. Further questioning of the great problems of the early medieval period will need to proceed from the imposing research lucidly explained in this book.

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