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Monday, November 5, 2012

“Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered”, by Peter S. Wells

256 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393060751

Peter Wells joins a growing list of authors driving nails into the coffin of the received historical narrative – you know, the old with the collapse of the Western Empire Europe descended into the Dark Ages, into a time (to paraphrase William Manchester) when the world was lit only by fire narrative. As Wells so capably shows this was not the case, material evidence (archeological discoveries) conflict with the received wisdom. There is overwhelming evidence of far flung trade (a 6th Century Buddha statue unearthed in Sweden, or archeological finds at Tintagel for just two examples) that belie the assertion Europeans were living isolated lives and were uninvolved with the world. In point of fact trade reached to Egypt and India, yet the myths of the Dark Ages are perpetuated.

In the real world, the collapse of the Empire freed millions from Roman slavery: those famous Roman roads were not built for trade as we understand trade; rather, they were built to funnel the wealth on the conquered territories back to the Roman elite. The reason they were torn up is simple: they did not serve the needs of the locals, the stone was more valuable as building material than a highway – one avoided by legions themselves, as they preferred to walking on the hard packed ground to either side of the road (if you wonder why, try walking 20 miles on a cobble stone road and tell me how your joints feel). With the collapse of the Empire the provinces boomed, new agricultural techniques were developed, food production soared – in short life became better for most.

Where, then, did the Dark Ages myth come from? From what fevered minds did it spring forth? Well, from people like Edward Gibbons who, when on his Grand Tour, saw the ruins that were the legacy, the greatness, of Greece and Rome. It’s easy to see Gibbons and others seeing in the passing of the Greek and Roman Empires an ominous foreshadowing of the decline of the British Empire. Mix in a liberal dose of anti-Catholicism and you have a recipe that continues to sell today. Thus, it wasn't the local European intellectual milieu that gave rise to the Italian Renaissance; it was, rather, a Chinese trade mission, or the collapse of Byzantium, or the Freemasons…

This book was an enjoyable read, not the least because about halfway through I kept thinking that it was yet another vindication of Henri Pirenne's thesis that the transition from the Late Roman to Medieval world was characterized more by continuity than catastrophic disruption. Probably the most important point I think this book makes are that details matter. No matter how compelling the narrative derived from ancient Roman authors by truly great writers like Gibbon, in the end the details finally brought to light by archeology can't be ignored. We all owe a debt of thanks to the many archeologists who worked so hard to bring us the "true facts" about this crucial turning point in Western history.

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