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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 12th, 2006
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Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800

by Chris Wickham

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Historical research incessantly accrues, but at certain times the study of a particular subject or era enters a period of unique originality and brilliance. The 1960s and 1970s proved to be a golden age for the study of both American slavery and British imperialism; the 1950s was such a time for scholarship on European intellectual history. Since the 1990s, the historical profession's most spectacular achievement has probably been the study of late antiquity -- the period in Europe and the Mediterranean world between A.D. 250 and 800, which saw the end of classical civilization as well as the triumph of Christianity and Islam.

The research has been both voluminous -- the archaeological picture for some countries has grown a hundredfold -- and transformative. Historians have profoundly altered their understanding of religious, cultural, intellectual, social, economic, and even military developments, and with it their understanding of, say, the fluidity between barbarian and classical societies, between Islam and Christendom, between paganism and Christianity, and between Eastern and Western Christendom. This historiographical explosion shows no sign of ending, perhaps because the dynamism of the subject fuels the dynamism of the research: ultimately, the scholars are attempting to fathom far-reaching historical change, and although it's true that all of history is marked by flux and transition, this period is especially so. (One of the myriad fundamental questions historians are wrestling with, for instance, is the rather obvious but terrifically complex one of how societies in northern Europe absorbed a religion whose outlook had been shaped in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.)

That two lasting works of synthesis -- both marked by stunning sweep and analytical depth -- have been published in three years attests to the fecundity and vitality of this scholarship. The radically revised Rise of Western Christendom, by the doyen of the field, Peter Brown, distilled a generation of scholarship on late antiquity, concentrating on cultural history, specifically the processes by which Christianity rose to dominate western Europe. Now Chris Wickham, an Oxford historian, has published his summa, a history of the period between A.D. 400 and 800 that almost wholly ignores cultural and religious matters, concentrating instead on socioeconomic change. A work that comparatively examines ten regions (Denmark, Ireland, England and Wales, Gaul, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia and Greece), it assesses such matters as state structures, the aristocracy and the peasantry, urbanism, and above all systems of exchange. It's usually clearly written, and often cleverly so, though as a systematic, Marxian history, it's always intellectually demanding and hence slow reading (it took me forever to finish its nearly 1,000 pages). But while few general readers will peruse it (and at $175, it's aimed exclusively at academic libraries and the largest public ones), history doesn't get any better.

Inventively and commandingly integrating documentary and archaeological sources, Wickham carefully compares the intricate and often patchy evidence, revealing the complexity of the societies and changes he's probing (most crucially, the innumerable and multifaceted social ramifications of the contraction of trade and taxation that attended the gradual fragmenting of the Roman Empire). More than almost any history I've read, Wickham's manages to be at once grand and rigorous. In its adroit and confident treatment of an array of subjects and disciplines, and in its exhaustive bibliography, this book, like Brown's, has encapsulated and synthesized a burgeoning field of scholarship at the point of perhaps its greatest creativity.

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