It used to be so easy, dividing history. First, Antiquity; then, the Middle Ages; and after that, the history of our own civilization, starting in the Renaissance. But in the course of the nineteenth century, Antiquity doubled its length and expanded to Egypt and the Near East, and in the twentieth century, it became increasingly clear that the caesura between the Late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages was not what it once had seemed.
I fondly remember reading Mahomet et Charlemagne (1937), the book in which Henri Pirenne proved that the “barbarians” had quickly been assimilated by Roman civilization. He went on to suggest that the real break had been the rise of Islam, which had divided the Mediterranean, and had been an obstacle to interregional trade. End of trade – end of cities – end of monetary taxes – end of schools – end of classical civilization. Pirenne wrote this before the rise of archaeology proved that the economic collapse in fact antedated the Arabian conquests, but even in his error, Pirenne showed the road ahead: the transformation from Antiquity to European Middle Ages must not be studied in isolation, but together with the rise of Islam.
Just as thought-provoking was an essay by Chris Wickham, called “The Other Transformation” (Past and Present 103 ), in which the Oxford historian described how the Roman Empire delegated itself into oblivion. I must have read it in 1992 or so and was impressed, and even though I increasingly turned to ancient history and archaeology as my own field, I always remembered the name of the author. So when, earlier this year, he published The Inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, I could not resist it. There has been a lot of debate about the Early Middle Ages, and this book – essentially the new synthesis – offered a chance to be updated again.
I was not disappointed. The book starts with a historiographical introduction that evoked so much of the excitement of a scholarly revolution that it made me envious. There are parts on the break-up of the Roman Empire, the creation of its successor states in the West, Byzantium and the Caliphate, and finally the rise of Carolingian Europe. It is hard to summarize The Inheritance of Rome, because to me, much was new, and even where Wickham dealt with subjects I think I know something about, he managed to phrase it in such a way that I often had the feeling I was learning new things.
One of the most important things is that he presents a full history of the age between Theodosius I and Otto III, Augustine of Hippo and al-Mansur of al-Andalus, Synesius of Cyrene and king Cnut. We read not just about Caesars, kings, and caliphs, but also about philosophers, clerics, and peasants. Wickham so consistently focuses on the way wealth is obtained and redistributed, that it would not be exaggerated to say that access to capital is the most important structural principle of the book, and not historical chronology. This may make the book a bit less accessible to the unimaginative reader, but I think Wickham has made the right decision; The Inheritance of Rome is a great read, precisely because it does not offer the standard chronological account that many of us already know.
Wickham’s professed aim is not to tell the standard story about, say, the rise of national identities, or to analyze the Middle Ages à la Burckhardt as the ages after Antiquity in which everything of value was lost until it was rediscovered in the Renaissance. Instead, he tries to present the events and facts without attempt to create a misleading grand narrative. For more than 500 pages, Wickham stresses differences and avoids generalizations (another reason why it is hard to summarize). It is only in the final chapter that he tries to create his own grand narrative: the break-up of the Roman Empire in the West and the Arab conquests in the East, the creation of an explicitly moralized political practice, the almost synchronous failure of the structures of public power in the West and the end of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the spread of stable hierarchies to northern and eastern Europe.
Specialists may find grounds for complaint about details, but I found the book very convincing, and hope that in the future, more historians will present their subject matter in this fashion. History is more than a story about kings and grand narratives should be dealt with skeptically.