Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered
by Peter S. Wells (Author)
# Hardcover: 256 pages
# Publisher: W. W. Norton (July 14, 2008)
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 0393060756
# ISBN-13: 978-0393060751
Starred Review. As archeology professor and author Wells (The Battle That Stopped Rome) points out, the only texts available on the cultures of "Dark Age" Europe (roughly A.D. 400-600) were written by those educated in the Roman tradition. The only unbiased evidence, therefore, is the material evidence. Covering five decades of excavation in western Europe (including London, Copenhagen, the outskirts of Stockholm, Cologne and Trier), Wells chronicles a revolution in the understanding of Europe after the Western Roman Empire's collapse, ostensibly at the hands of "barbarian hordes." Evidence accounts for vast trade networks that ranged from Byzantium and the Black Sea through the Baltic to Ireland, and across the Alps and Pyrenees; artifacts from as far away as India have been uncovered in Scandinavia. Buildings, metalworking and gem-cutting sites, and evidence for continuous occupation of many modern European cities, also provide rich proof that, contrary to the Roman-centric collapse-of-civilization narrative, the post-Roman world pulsed with robust, vital activity. Wells's aim is obviously a wide audience of armchair historians and archeologists; they won't be disappointed, and they'll have a fine reading list in Wells's sources and suggestions.
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A surprising look at the least-appreciated yet profoundly important period of European history: the so-called Dark Ages.
The barbarians who destroyed the glory that was Rome demolished civilization along with it, and for the next four centuries the peasants and artisans of Europe barely held on. Random violence, mass migration, disease, and starvation were the only way of life. This is the picture of the Dark Ages that most historians promote. But archaeology tells a different story. Peter S. Wells, one of the world's leading archaeologists, surveys the archaeological record to demonstrate that the Dark Ages were not dark at all. The kingdoms of Christendom that emerged starting in the ninth century sprang from a robust, previously little-known, European culture, albeit one that left behind few written texts. This recently recognized culture achieved heights in artistry, technology, craft production, commerce, and learning. Future assessments of the period between Rome and Charlemagne will need to incorporate this fresh new picture. 24 illustrations.
There are so many lengthy difficult books about the Early Middle Ages, written for and by specialists, what a delight to find a short and easy to read summary of the latest scholarship of this rapidly changing multi-disciplinary field, written for a general audience by a medieval scholar with an up to date and useful bibliography.
The term "Dark Ages" has a long and complicated history ever since its invention by Italian Humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries. Modern medieval historians try to avoid the term Dark Ages with its pejorative implications. However some will still justify its use because the period was "dark to us", because of the lack of written record. However even this is no longer the case, a wealth of archaeological information has surfaced to enlighten the period. The old prejudices of a violent, backwards and stagnant time are falling away. Was it different from Rome? Yes, but to apply a value judgment of a "Dark Age" is inappropriate, this powerful metaphor has sadly shaped many peoples vision of the period.
Peter Wells examines some of the enduring myths and shows, through new archaeological findings, rather than a sudden break with the past, a continuity of history. For example there is a myth that urban centers declined or were abandoned, Wells shows substantial evidence this was not the case, using a case example of London. There is a myth of continuous violence and warfare, however Wells suggests this could not have been the case because of freedom of movement and trade that was occurring. There is a myth that technology halted or went backwards, when in fact it was a period of innovation, including the deep plow, horse harness and 3-field system which created a surplus in food, population and specialization. There is a myth that Roman roads deteriorated, which is true, but the original Roman roads were built on ancient roadways and were mainly only meant for military purposes anyway. Artwork flourished in this period finding new and original expressions.
Barbarians to Angels is a quick read for a general audience that summarizes a lot of recent and difficult scholarship. For more specialized works, to understand how we know what we know, the "proof", there is an excellent Bibliography.
Like another reviewer, I remain unconvinced of the author's thesis about post-Roman Europe. He rejects the term "barbarians" for the people who followed the Romans, but because they lacked a written language, their level of "civilization" cannot be demonstrated. The fact that they made and imported decorative objects is not proof of either moral enlightenment or intelligence. I read this book with much interest, and admire its succinct coverage of a complex subject, accessible to the nonspecialist. However, I sense an apologia for our Enlightenment viewpoint, an attempt not to judge, to give "Dark Ages" Europeans too much of the benefit of the doubt. His philosophy is much like Jared Diamond's in his two best-selling books which try to downplay the "superiority" of the West and explain the lack of development in the Third World totally in terms of geographical happenstance and environmental negligence. I would put credence in the written evidence of contemporary Roman writers. The quality of the human beings involved to me is always paramount. And given the paltry evidence for Dark Ages civilization (except for the monasteries), I read this book with yes, skepticism.