Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called “Dark Ages” really weren’t that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximately 410 to the takeover of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 is actually not correct.
Wells begins with Late Antiquity and the fall of the Roman Empire explaining how this all came about and what state Europe was left in once Rome was gone. But instead of painting the invading tribes as desecrating the relics of the once great empire, he creates a whole new canvas in revealing that the migration of foreign tribes and peoples in the former Roman Empire was a gradual one that took place while the Empire was still thriving. There was not necessarily a “hostile takeover,” but a replacing of government with people who were not indigenous to the region and had lived there for some time.
Wells creates the same setting for the mass migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Western Europe to Britain as not an event that occurred within a hundred years, but something that took place over centuries. The author attempts to prove all these findings which are quite contrary to common thought on the subject with photos and evidence of the regions apparently revealing that the migrating people had been there for a lot longer than thought, or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, that the populations were never that large to begin with.
The other part to Barbarians to Angels, according to Wells, is that the “Dark Ages” were not a return to an ignorant and primitive way of life for many, with the power lying in the hands of the church, but a time of life similar to that experienced during the Roman Empire, with extensive trading throughout the continent of Europe. With this trading there would’ve been an exchange of cultural knowledge and education leading to better developed societies.
Peter Wells does an impressive job in revealing perhaps a different world and way of life for the people of the Early Middle Ages. His failing lies in the amount of evidence presented, which may be partially due to the limitations in the length of the book, but may also lie with there simply not being enough evidence to help prove his point. As a medieval historian, I’m not thoroughly convinced with the case he presents in Barbarians to Angels, however there are some very interesting ideas, with evidence that cannot be ignored. The most sobering and perhaps convincing item is that of a bronze figure of Buddha that was crafted in northern India in the sixth century and was recovered in Helgö, Sweden, which leaves one at least contemplating the ideas expressed in Barbarians to Angels.
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Originally written on October 7th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.