“Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe” by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Empires and Barbariansstarstarstarstar

As time passes, more research is done, more artifacts and items are discovered, and more is known about the beginning of the Middle Ages, often know as the so-called “Dark Ages.”  The simple explanation that is spouted in most simple history books is the idea that when the Roman Empire fell, all of Western Europe regressed to barbarian savages and everything was lost, and it was not until around a thousand years later that this continent achieved a civilized status once more.  But as more study, archaeology, and discoveries are made, the idea of these “Dark Ages” is turning out to be a gross misnomer.  Thankfully, books like Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians are doing their part to strike the use of this term from the record.

Peter Heather, a professor of Medieval History at King’s College London, begins with an important recapping of the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, setting the stage with what was going on and why the giant machine came to a grinding, crumbling halt.  Heather then launches into a discussion on the birth of Europe and what exactly was going on, using thorough and up to date research.  The book is divided into eleven large chapters covering the big social groups of Europe including the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Huns, and others.  It is commonly conceived that many of these groups moved in massive migration patterns easily around the continent, displacing other ethnic groups that were already there; new evidence and research, however, says otherwise; this is what Empires and Barbarians is about.

Heather spends many pages discussing and educating the reader on the migration patterns of these social groups, which were not in such large numbers as previously thought.  Heather never proclaims, but is a good historian with theories and suppositions on the evidence, going into detail that it was more likely these large groups weren’t displaced or killed, but joined up with the smaller invading social groups.  The result was a new ruling class, the best example of which is the Norman invasion (thanks to the Doomsday Book), that became a part of the society it was invading, not seeking to eradicate it so much as to rule over it and become part of its culture.

Empires and Barbarians is a thick and thorough history book on this important period in history, backed up with maps and a lengthy bibliography.  Peter Heather doesn’t hold back on what he thinks and has to say, but the key is to stick with it and you end up learning more about the early medieval world than you ever would’ve expected.

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Originally written on June 28 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

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