Many people refer to the period of 400-1000 as the “dark ages.” After the fall of Rome, when society in Western Europe shut down, people went back to simple, primitive ways – terms like savages and barbarians are often used – as they squabbled and fought against each other, killing mercilessly for a bit of land; the only beacon of hope, the growing light of Christianity. I’ve never been a fan of the term “dark ages,” or all the connotations, thoughts, and ideas that people – historians and laymen alike – infer from it. Thankfully there is Chris Wickham: a Chichele Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford and author of Framing the Middle Ages. Wickham has worked hard to educate those who are unsure or simply don’t that the period from 400-1000 was one of the most important growth period of ideas, invention, and thought in the history of Western Europe. The Inheritance of Rome does a fantastic job of explaining this in comprehensive detail with viewpoints from all of Western Europe, including the Near East with the Byzantine Empire. I won’t lie to you; this isn’t an easy summer read; it’s a heavy book in every sense of the word, but if you’re looking to educate yourself on what exactly was going on between the fifth and eleventh centuries in Europe, after reading The Inheritance of Rome, you will have amassed an impressive amount of knowledge and be able to defend yourself and the period against anyone who attempts to call it the “dark ages.”
Wickham begins with a concise wrap up of the waning centuries of the Roman Empire, setting the stage for the focus of the book, which is divided into four parts: “Part I – The Roman Empire and its Break-up, 400-550”; “Part II: The Post-Roman West, 550-750”; “Part III: The Empires of the East, 550-1000”; and “Part IV: The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West, 750-1000.” While the time periods of each part do overlap, this doesn’t prove to be a problem as Wickham is analyzing different areas, but also does a great job of linking what’s happening in a particular location with what was going on in another location in the previous chapter. The author uses maps, illustrations, diagrams, and photographs to illustrate points about the constant trade, migration and commingling of societies, cultures, and kingdoms that continued to thrive during this period and were instrumental in setting a foundation for the eventual High Middles Ages and beginning of the renaissance. Wickham does have a theme and clear point to make, which is in the title: most of Western Europe had at one time been either a part of or bordered with the most dominating and impressive empire the world has ever seen, so it makes perfect sense that most of these different cultures would try to maintain and emulate the ways of Rome, which helped spark a genesis for new forms of writing, new ways of trade and negotiation, new forms of farming, a new judicial system of laws, and forced societies that had been sheltered, supported and lapped from the bosom of Rome for so long, to gain their independence and establish themselves as individuals, with unique technology, development, and cultural ways; helping give rise to the likes of the Merovingians and Clovis, the Carolingians and Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, and many others.
The Early Middle Ages has always been my most favorite period of history and I’ve never been able to explain succinctly why. It has something to do with the fall of Rome and leaving this vast world of different peoples and cultures to live on their own and develop their individuality whilst maintaining contact and trade with each other. It’s about the countries of Western Europe beginning, with the birth of many of the renowned cities we know today. The Inheritance of Rome helps fuel my interest and love for this period. And as more knowledge, evidence, and archaeology about the period is discovered, the more we learn that the “dark ages” is a great misnomer that should be stripped from this important period of discovery and development.
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Originally written on September 30th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.