In furtherance of my new year's blogging resolution, I have another history book to recommend, albeit a rather less lean and breezy one: Chris Wickham's meticulous and thoroughly enjoyable The Inheritance of Rome (2009). The subtitle labels it a history of Europe between 400 and 1000, but this - gratifyingly - is 'Europe' broadly conceived. Being primarily an economic and social historian, Wickham pays considerable and illuminating attention to the inter-connectedness of things on a material level; his analysis therefore ranges beyond political borders to take in Byzantium, North Africa and the Near East alongside the usual stories of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon early medieval history.
One thing I should emphasise is that although this is an entry in Penguin's History of Europe series, Wickham's book is not precisely a textbook, nor is it a straightforward and dry narrative political history. There is a broadly chronological trend to the structure; the book is split into four parts which fall under the slightly arbitrary rubric (but then, what sort of periodization doesn't have an element of the arbitrary to it?) of 400-550, 550-750 in the west, 550-1000 in the east, and 750-1000 in the west. But alongside the more conventional chapters on the political and cultural developments in particular regions between particular dates, there are also a number of thematic offerings, on topics including culture and belief in late antiquity, material culture and display, eastern Mediterranean exchange networks, and the ever-narrowing lives available to peasants.
It is tempting to suggest, in fact, that a reader new to the period might begin with the thematic chapters; political history provides grounding and context, but when it comes to getting a feel for the time, Wickham's deft synthesis - notably in chapter three - of decades of research and debate on late antique Christianity as a social and political phenomenon is an excellent place to start.
The scholarly concept of late antiquity has its origins in an effort to rethink the eastern Roman (often called Byzantine) world - that is, to understand it as a place that is not merely a sad remnant of classical Rome, but one with its own distinct characteristics and its own active, vibrant culture(s). There is no doubt that the period saw significant changes, which can be traced archaeologically (albeit not always with the chronological precision we might wish for). Wickham notes that four-fifths of Byzantine cities "lost all or most of their urban characteristics" in the seventh century: that is, the material remains of the period testify to the creep of agriculture and herding within city walls, the disappearance of open spaces, the obstruction of streets, failure to maintain or even active dismantling of public buildings, catastrophic demographic decline. Through a combination of repeated outbreaks of plague, multiple earthquakes, endemic warfare and a decline in imperial revenues (and thus public spending), there's no doubt that life became considerably more nasty, brutish and short in this period, for urban populations in particular.
But what it wasn't was just an echo of Rome (even if Christianity's sexual morality owes a lot to Roman patriarchal mores). Late antiquity had its own, fascinatingly diverse and complex, tenor. Its central characteristic is the marriage of monotheistic (and to a large extent institutionalised) religion with imperial political authority: one God, one empire, one emperor, with all attendant universalist assumptions. The notion of one true faith, applicable to all humankind, gave eastern Romans - as it did their Abrahamic cousins of the period, the early Muslims - a whole new justification and impetus for attempting to conquer the world.
Everything was thus viewed through the lens of religion, and expressed in terms of it. This was a world alive with the supernatural, both beneficient and malign, as the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai - an eighth-century gazetteer of Constantinople's topography and monuments - testifies, in its many tales of demon-possessed statuary inflicting abrupt, random doom upon unsuspecting Christian locals. One of its anecdotes tells how a certain Theodore went with his friend Himerios to view the statues in the Kynegion theatre (in the north of the city); Theodore could only watch, aghast, as one of said statues fell on poor Himerios and killed him. The emperor of the day, we're told (Philippikos, r. 711-13), had the offending statue buried forthwith to neutralise the threat. "Take care when you look at old statues," the story concludes, solemnly, "especially pagan ones." Angels and demons walked in the world, and no event was immune from scrutiny as to its cosmic significance: the hints it offered about the on-going plans of God, or of his particular mood at that moment.
The twin corollaries of all this were that internal disagreements over the doctrines of the one true religion were both inevitable and highly charged: people being wrong on such issues was not just a matter for annoyance or debate, it was an act of defiance that undermined imperial and ecclesiastical authority (bad for church and emperor) and risked calling down the wrath of God on the whole community (bad for everybody). Which is why so many contemporary Christian accounts of the 7th-century Arab-Muslim conquests of the Near and Middle East spend all their time blaming those heretics down the road for bringing down divine punishment on them, rather than paying any attention to the new monotheistic game in town.
Wickham explains the nature of these debates - in the east in this period, most centring around the nature of Christ (whether he was entirely human, entirely divine, both, or one of a variety of various on the foregoing) - clearly and accessibly. For present purposes, he also makes useful points about the parallels and contrasts between the approach taken in different parts of Europe to these issues, noting that the types of controversy varied according to the intellectual and political milieu:
Pagan observers found these debates ridiculous, even insane, as well as amazingly badly behaved, but having an accurate and universally agreed definition of God became increasingly important for Christians between 300 and 550, not least because the political power of bishops steadily increased. It is relevant that they mattered more in the east, where technical philosophical debate was longer-rooted in intellectual life, but with the 'barbarian' conquests Christological issues came to the west as well.
The west, he goes on to explain, was more concerned with the writings of St Augustine, especially his themes of predestination and grace. Wickham explores the reasons that such debates induced furious argument, schism, and even violence, in both east and west - while still finding time for some wry humour in the extremities of the situations that resulted, which lightens the tone and humanises what could have been a very long recitation of church councils in multiple regions of Europe. I enjoyed the head-shaking pragmatism of the Pagans over the "amazingly badly behaved" eastern Christians in the above paragraph, and I also got a chuckle from this aside on a western split taken to its logical extreme:
[V]egetarianism itself, a standard ascetic trait, was a little suspect in Spain because Priscillianists refused meat, and the 561 council of Braga required vegetarian clerics at least to cook their greens in meat broth, to show their orthodoxy.
Wickham further grounds his sweeping cultural developments by opening each chapter with a thumbnail sketch of a notable player in, or observer of, the events to be discussed - someone who exemplifies contemporary possibilities and conflicts within their lives. Alongside the more familiar figures like Sidonius Apollinaris (discussed here, in passing, a month or two ago) are some clever and entertaining choices: 10th-century geographer Ibn Hawqal sneering at the way the Sicilians mispronounced their Arabic, abused logical argument and were ignorant of the basic tenets of Islamic law, and especially the "sour, self-righteous, ungrateful and paranoid" ascetic hermit Valerius of the Bierzo, being disturbed from his would-be seclusion by the torments of the devil, who tempted
a local aristocrat and a bishop to try to make him a priest, thus regularizing his position (fortunately they both died).
Any book that aims to discuss 600 years of history "from Ireland to Constantinople, the Baltic to the Mediterranean", as the back cover puts it, is bound to be quite a large undertaking, and Inheritance duly weighs in it some 560 pages (plus 60 pages of notes and guides to further reading). It can, indeed, be somewhat dense in places, but not offputtingly so (at least to me!): chapters tend to be between twenty and thirty pages long, and while it is not the sort of book you can gobble down in a few evenings, Wickham mixes story and detail very well to maintain the reader's interest. Along the way he introduces us to "formidably educated" Saxon women like Hrotsvitha (d. 975), who wrote plays influenced by the Roman comic dramatist Terence; notes in passing how the Venetians came to choose St Mark as their patron saint - they nicked his body from their Muslim-ruled trading partner Alexandria in the 820s; and offers lucid, valuable discussions of those corners of Europe that are more usually the province of specialist literature, including a fascinating guide to the astonishingly intricate and sophisticated legal system of medieval Ireland (a topic new to me) and a simply excellent concise description of the vagaries of Visigothic Spain.
In many ways this is a taster for Wickham's shelf-endangering magnum opus, Framing the Middle Ages (2005), but for the intelligent general reader who is willing to be persuaded of the value of analysing pottery production every so often, there is plenty to dip into here, and plenty to get lost in.