There’s sometimes a bit of a paradox as you look closer and closer into an event or period in history. The end of the Roman empire can a great example of this – classically it was thought that the empire (and indeed civilization) came to a crashing halt under waves of barbarian invasions, but as historians have looked more closely at the years, decades and even centuries after they see all sorts of continuity. Often the same type of people were running things, often using the same methods. People living through these world changing events may not have realized they were quite so defining. Yet living standards did fall, economically things declined, the quality of items found by archaeologists drops. How do you trace a middle path that can account for both sides of the argument?
For Chris Wickham, you do it very carefully. In this book Wickham tries to summarize european history between 400 and 1000 A.D. (including the Byzantines and Islam) while constantly stressing that there is no overarching story or end point. At times this begs the question, why put it all together in one book? But Wickham does piece together certain themes throughout the book – the influence of Rome on these successor states and how they continued or broke away from the old ways of doing things.
Despite all the ambiguity, Wickham seems authoritative (on Latin Christendom at least). The range of anecdotes, analysis and information is breathtaking; and where there is nothing to go on, Wickham is explaining that as well. The painstakingly precise style means that it isn’t always an easy read, but it does feel worthwhile. It may help that my podcast listening had recently taken me to Patrick Wyman‘s podcasts, and he stresses very similar continuities.
Perversely, the sheer scale and depth of the book actually helps. A look into the political procedures of one kingdom might be dry and difficult to follow; but repeated over multiple kingdoms, regions and cultures it starts to become understandable. This comparison seems to justify Wickham’s scope for the book: Why include Islamic empires? Why even include outlying regions of Europe like Ireland or Scandinavia? Because these shine light on the successor kingdoms to Rome that could otherwise be the focus of a more conventional book.