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Britain after Rome : The Fall and Rise, from 400-1070 (2010)

by Robin Fleming

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288591,500 (4.07)9
The enormous hoard of beautiful gold military objects found in 2009 in a field in Staffordshire has focused huge attention on the mysterious world of 7th and 8th century Britain.Clearly the product of a sophisticated, wealthy, highly militarized society, the objects beg innumerable questions about how we are to understand the people who once walked across the same landscape we inhabit, who are our ancestors and yet left such a slight record of their presence. Britain after Rome brings together a wealth of research and imaginative engagement to bring us as close as we can hope to get to the tumultuous centuries between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of Norman invaders nearly seven centuries later. As towns fell into total decay, Christianity disappeared and wave upon wave of invaders swept across the island, it can be too easily assumed that life in Britain became intolerable - and yet this is the world in which modern languages and political arrangements were forged, a number of fascinating cultures rose and fell and tantalizing glimpses, principally through the study of buildings and burials, can be had of a surprising and resilient place. The result of a lifetime of work, Robin Fleming's major new addition to the Penguin History of Britain could not be more opportune. A richly enjoyable, varied and surprising book, Britain after Rome allows its readers to see Britain's history in a quite new light.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
Excellent overall, and with a broad approach both geographically and chronologically which avoids the usual trap of histories of this period; namely, over-focus on Alfred the Great and the generations either side of him in Wessex and southern England. My one criticism is that, in her attempt to avoid obsessing over high politics, Fleming perhaps glosses over political developments a little too readily. Still, a fascinating study and well-worth reading. ( )
  KatherineJaneWright | Jul 17, 2022 |
Insightful and instructive. Most histories of early Medieval England focuses on texts; Bede and Nennius and Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Professor Robin Fleming takes a different approach, looking at archaeological, sociological and economic data. Quite a bit of this is surprising and counterintuitive; I’m reminded of Francis Pryor’s archaeological history, Britain in the Middle Ages, and the admonition that if textual data disagrees with physical evidence, go with the physical evidence.

My first surprise was how completely civilization in England collapsed after the Roman empire withdrew. Fleming makes the point that the province of Britannia was a net economic loss to the Roman Empire. The legions stationed in Britain were one eighth of the total imperial army, and the defense and administration of Britain consumed one sixteenth of the imperial budget, even though Britain was one of forty provinces. Although some military supplies were provided locally, the bulk came by sea across the Channel, supplied by contractors – and these contractors took advantage of military transport to stash some extra, luxury items in with each shipload, thus getting free shipping. When the legions withdrew, this changed and luxury good no longer arrived from the Continent. Local production took up some of the slack but local industries that had depended on the military – Fleming mentions iron and salt – also declined. City populations declined as they lost trade and industry – Fleming notes that London, for example, underwent what would later be called “urban renewal” – crowded tenement and industrial area were demolished. There were still very wealthy people, who built urban villas surrounded by gardens in the newly vacated areas; but there was no more public construction: no more theaters, baths, or forums. Then that collapsed too. Raids over the now deserted Hadrian’s Wall and along the now undefended coasts caused systemic economic collapse over the whole country, not just the attacked areas. Roads went unmaintained. Villas damaged by raiders or accident weren’t repaired or rebuilt. And entire industries vanished; people either forgot or were unable to make things as simple as nails and pots. Burials no long have coffins since there were no nails to hold them together and older cemeteries were raided for cremation urns – not for reuse in burials but to have to contents discarded so they could be used as domestic pots.

Some of the raiders came to stay, but Fleming notes there’s no archaeological evidence for an Anglo-Saxon “invasion” despite claims of medieval authors like Gildas; instead it was more on the lines of “immigration”. The Angles and Saxons and Jutes that came to Britain do not seem to be an organized force but individual boatloads of people fleeing trouble in their home countries. Doubtless some did raid and plunder but most seem to have settled down and farmed beside their British neighbors. There were some changes in custom; Fleming notes male burials often include weapons (something never seen in Roman times, even in military cemeteries), females are buried with more jewelry, and child burials are missing. As noted in Christianity in Roman Britain, Christianity seems to have disappeared in eastern Britain but survived in the west; Fleming confirms this, noting western area still had bishops (however, these often worked out of monasteries rather than towns).

That segues into another of Fleming’s surprising observations; towns essentially disappeared from postRoman Britain. A few – London, for example – survived but most just vanished as civic authority evaporated. There seem to have been some trading posts, tribute centers for local strongmen, and holy sites, but these were places people visited, not lived in. Craftsmen were itinerant; for example, potters would set up temporary kilns and work for a few weeks, then move on (the archaeological evidence for this is groups of pots decorated with the same stamps but all made of local clay). Gradually things did change. Fleming’s economic analysis is local rulers realized they could make money off towns, by charging taxes, and merchants realized that taxes were a small price to pay for the assurance of safety and fair dealing provided by the local lord. Coinage was introduced again – the Anglo-Saxon silver penny – which made taxes easier to collect, and Britain climbed back to prosperity. Then the Vikings showed up. They were more inclined to loot, pillage, rape, burn, and enslave than the earlier Anglo-Saxon “immigrants” – possibly because their superior ships and seamanship made it easier to return home with their takings. The Anglo-Saxons had become rich enough to bribe Vikings to go home; in 1018 the Vikings were paid 19 million silver pennies. What’s more, the silver wasn’t mined in Britain; it came from Germany, so the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were prosperous enough to trade for German silver, then turn around and give it to Vikings. One response to the Vikings was the construction of burhs - fortifications – around the country, and these in turn attracted settlements (burh is cognate to borough).

Fleming notes new farming techniques contributed both to increased prosperity and redevelopment of towns. The original Mediterranean style plow was replaced by iron plows capable of turning over heavy clay soil, not just scratching a groove in it, allowing expansion of farming into previously unproductive areas. However, the new plows required large ox teams – more than a single farmer could afford. That required farmers to live close enough to be able to borrow a neighbor’s oxen during plowing season. Oxen required pasturage, but also hay for the winter; once again hay making was a cooperative enterprise since English weather is such that there are not that many days when haying is possible so everybody had to turn out. Farming communities thus became more concentrated – and attracted landlords.

Fleming’s last chapter is a discussion of mortality – and it’s pretty grim. Life was short. Excavated skeletons show all sorts of signs of hard work, stress, and malnutrition. Although life wasn’t that great for anyone, it was especially hard for children and women; in one site 46% of the men but 71% of the women were dead by 35. Other excavated cemeteries have similar numbers. Fleming comments this must have lead to social and economic situations that would seem very strange to moderns; 17-year-old wives who’d already lost their mothers, possibly even all their older female relatives; and lots of adolescent and young men unable to find a wife because of a shortage of available women. There was one group, however, that did tend to live longer – the religious. Monks and nuns had longer lives than their secular counterparts, and some skeletons even show features related to obesity. It gives a different take on the common historical novel theme of a young man or woman being forced to become a monk or nun; instead there might have been many who got religion to get enough to eat and to avoid dying in childbirth.

Lots of fascinating stuff like this; a very different take on things than other recently reviewed histories, like Mercia and Æthelred the Unready. Good maps of Britain showing all the sites mentioned. Fleming reports her editor insisted that there be no footnotes; instead there are copious suggestions for further reading, sorted by chapter and subsorted by specific topics. An excellent index. ( )
5 vote setnahkt | Jun 8, 2020 |
A look at what life was like in Britain during England's Anglo-Saxon period and how life changed over the six centuries or so.

By and large the author eschews the approach which focuses on what texts tell us of the doings of kings and high-ranking nobility and clergy, and tries to use archaeology to write a history of social life. Despite her best efforts, though, however interesting this is, it does not constitute the narrative history she wants it to be as we move forward in time from the breakdown of Romano-British infrastructure to England's prosperity just before the Norman conquest. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Aug 7, 2014 |
Absolute MUST READ, if you want to know what life was like for the 99% that weren't kings or bishops. Fascinating narrative, woven together with thousands of threads of material evidence. If you want to write history using archaeology, you have to read this book. This is how history should be written, but so rarely is. ( )
  Steve.Bivans | Jul 20, 2014 |
I’ve always found this period, which used to be called the Dark Ages or the Age of Arthur or Anglo-Saxon, particularly interesting. Over the years interpretations, chronologies, events, facts on the ground and more have changed – sometimes quite drastically. At one time you had people like Geoffrey Ashe and John Morris positing a role for King Arthur in some detail. Then there were the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came over from very specific places in north Europe and massacred all the Britons. But then historians started looking at the texts with a more sceptical eye. Why did Gildas describe his age in such apocalyptic terms? Well he was using the tropes of Latin rhetoric for one thing so may not have been interested in facts on the ground. Bede describes warrior peoples coming to Britain but the archaeological evidence shows no such thing? Well he was going back to the ‘heroic age’ of the great kingdoms of his time – an imaginary or much elaborated story. The archaeological evidence keeps growing as the examination of sites becomes more exacting and more precise.

This then is a history of what we know of the development of the lives, everyday lives, of the people who lived in England (and sometimes elsewhere in Britain) up to Domesday Book. The author eschews political and military history partly because for a major part of this period it is almost entirely missing and partly because she wants to tell a different story. So we follow the breakdown of the Roman urban model, the growth of isolated farmsteads, the appearance of local powerful men and their absorption by local power groups, sub-kingdoms, kingdoms and eventually a recognisable country. We see the local big men amass more and more of the available wealth and their conspicuous consumption after acquiring it. The towns grow from seasonal trading centres to local emporia to real towns and again we see their relationship to local and district power and to the church. In the country nucleated villages are created, apparently with the encouragement of local ‘lords’ who thereby accrue more of the surplus wealth which can then be sold on in the growing towns which in turn makes the lords even richer.

I have never read a better description and explanation of the changes in religious life, of how early monasteries and minsters were radically different places from later Benedictine monasteries which started to appear in the eleventh century. She describes the gradual absorption of the new religion which is evidenced in the graves of ‘believers’ who at first combined the ‘best’ of the old and the new and only gradually adopted more regular Christian practices. While building a parish church for your manor was an act of piety, it was also a display of your wealth and, better still, a means of accumulating wealth as a portion of tithes and burial fees accrued to the lord. Then as now people were complex and often had contradictory and complicated opinions, beliefs and actions.

From time to time the author picks a specific village, monastery or settlement. What people ate, wore or worshipped is explored or we even get a feel for individual lives of grinding hard work and constant debilitating illness, unless they were clergy and elites in the later centuries who even show signs of obesity!

A couple of cavils. The book barely looks outside of England. Apart from the very occasional foray over the borders this is a history of English people. Perhaps too little of the written record is explored or explained especially as it so often contradicts the archaeological record.

Nonetheless covering England it gives a real feel for the growth of a new society from the end of the Roman period.
  Caomhghin | May 13, 2013 |
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The enormous hoard of beautiful gold military objects found in 2009 in a field in Staffordshire has focused huge attention on the mysterious world of 7th and 8th century Britain.Clearly the product of a sophisticated, wealthy, highly militarized society, the objects beg innumerable questions about how we are to understand the people who once walked across the same landscape we inhabit, who are our ancestors and yet left such a slight record of their presence. Britain after Rome brings together a wealth of research and imaginative engagement to bring us as close as we can hope to get to the tumultuous centuries between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of Norman invaders nearly seven centuries later. As towns fell into total decay, Christianity disappeared and wave upon wave of invaders swept across the island, it can be too easily assumed that life in Britain became intolerable - and yet this is the world in which modern languages and political arrangements were forged, a number of fascinating cultures rose and fell and tantalizing glimpses, principally through the study of buildings and burials, can be had of a surprising and resilient place. The result of a lifetime of work, Robin Fleming's major new addition to the Penguin History of Britain could not be more opportune. A richly enjoyable, varied and surprising book, Britain after Rome allows its readers to see Britain's history in a quite new light.

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