If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

Cover of Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

Well, no, hang on, I am inclined to do that, no subjunctive necessary. I do it about the salt trade and about aristocrats and I do it more or less in sport, because ultimately Chris has read about two hundred times more than I have and just has a better basis for being right about what he says than I do except on a very few topics. But, if while chomping avidly through Framing The Early Middle Ages I had stumbled on such things where I know enough to wonder about alternatives, you understand, and had thought about it a bit and still not quite resolved them, they would be these.

Supply and Demand

This has been on my mind a bit lately because of arguing with both Guy Halsall and Chris about the effect of climate change on the medieval economy. I, seeing as has Fredric Cheyette (so I have good company) that the new climate data on the Medieval Climatic Anomaly makes the rise in temperature up to and beyond the year 1000 ever more evident, have assumed that this must have meant more surplus, thus more resource for those able to appropriate surplus, and thus simultaneously more options on how to spend for those people and also more competition for them, as suddenly extra people can get into the game. I actually think this still floats, but there is an important point which Chris’s work should have warned me about, that being that this surplus only grows if someone wants it; otherwise, as Chris has legendarily put it, the peasants would just eat more and work less.1 I think we could find entrepreneurial peasants, here and there, but the point needs defending at least. I have been thinking purely in terms of supply; Chris, arguably, has considered demand far far more important.

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel

Roman-period olive press at Capernaum, Israel (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, Chris puts quite a lot of weight in Framing on the breakdown of economic systems based on the Roman market economy; with no supply, the demand for either basic substances (or, if you’re instead Guy Halsall, for example, and consider luxury trade anything more than marginal, luxuries that you as local leader deploy to maintain your position) can’t be met, and anyone with importance who wants to keep it has to reconfigure it hugely.2 The collapse, for both Chris and Guy, is supply-driven. On the other hand, when the economy recovers and complex polities are built again, it’s not because of a change in supply, for Chris, it’s because the polities themselves drive the economy. He can do this without being inconsistent because for him the Roman economy was also driven by the state, so the supply that collapses was created by a previous demand, and I see the point but nonetheless there’s a chicken-and-egg problem at the recovery end of the process; do the aristocrats see that the land could grow more, and work out how to make peasants do that, or do they see rich peasants and think, how can I use that? Surely the latter, since Chris himself argues that agronomy was not the pursuit of more than a slightly odd subset of the Roman élite.3 So, surely that’s supply-led not demand-led. I think there may be scope for argument here.

Warleadership as a non-material resource

More briefly, because it implicates less of my own thinking: in Chapter 6 of Framing, Chris discusses the resources available to rulers of a ‘tribal’ polity, or rather, of tribal polities in the process of becoming what he terms states.4 (Magistra has covered all this terminology-chopping, which is necessary and substantive but which I don’t want to repeat, better than I am therefore going to.) These include trade tolls, for some, tribute of course, a marginal amount of judicial income and revenue from landownership. He also mentions booty taken in war but thinks this too is marginal. Well, OK, yes, it probably is, but there was something important about being able to get hundreds of men to come on campaign with you anyway, especially if they fed themselves; one could even say that since they were then using their surplus to your greater cause, this is a material income, but I’m more interested in the non-material side, the authority that ruler could claim and deploy. I think this is important because it distinguishes between polities that Chris classes as similar, Wales, Ireland, Norway or Frisia, Denmark and the non-Mercian English kingdoms. It’s always hard to measure army sizes, we know this (again it is useful to put Chris and Guy together here, as they are once again mostly in agreement but interested in different things), but Norway seems to have had quite a lot of its population militarised at some points, and sometimes Wales could raise armies that can take on Northumbria, and then ever after it could not.5 Frisia didn’t really have any army at all that we know of; that seems to be something its kings didn’t get to do, perhaps because wealth was so distributed there via trade. Denmark absolutely did, however. And I would also add in the Picts, and in fact any militarised group from outside the Empire; they didn’t have much political complexity, they may not even have had any kind of stable rulership, but they could raise enough men in arms to take on the Roman Empire’s local manifestations. I don’t think this was economically important, myself, but I think that a king who could lead an army of maybe a thousand or even five thousand men in times of real need, and even more so if not times of real need, was playing in a different league than one who could raise, well, 300 heroes after a year’s feasting, especially if those two then face off against each other. He could do more things. He could probably build dykes and so on, but he could also defend larger areas (because he presumably called troops from them). It’s not negligible just because he didn’t increase his personal resources from it. (And after all, the Carolingians found a way to turn that obligation into money.6) That’s an argument I could have, too.

Breakdown and Build-up in Britain

The sections of Framing on sub-Roman Britain are probably the most provocative bits, because it is certainly true that often the outsider sees most of the game; few people are better-placed than Chris to spot what looks odd and, well, insular, about a national scholarship.7 Using this perspective as leverage, he argues for a rapid and almost total breakdown of political organisation in Britain, down to tiny levels, 100-hide and 300-hide units, that then recombine. I am fine with this for the becoming-English lowlands, and Chris argues therefore that British polities there must have been equally tiny or the English could have never got established, and that by extension this must apply to the more outlying British polities. I don’t like this quite so well. The outlying ones, profiting from the fact that they still had a Roman-facing seaboard in some sense, were for a while richer than the lowland zones, most would agree; Tintagel and Dinas Powys and Dumbarton may have been tiny-grade compared to a Continental aristocracy, but in their context they were major players (Dinas less so, but stay with me).8 Surely these should have started large (if not sophisticated) and broken down, not collapsed into fragments and been reassembled? They were far enough from the eastern seaboard that changes there and next-door to Neustria would be beyond their reach, but the same is also true in reverse, the tiny polities of the incipient North Sea zone are far from the Atlantic trade-routes and the polities that profit from them. It’s only once the English kingdoms had built up a bit, at which point they had the North Sea working for them and could thus start to become rich themselves while the Mediterranean links were finally dying out for the British, that the once-big-kingdoms of the now-Welsh were directly opposed to the English.9 Once that began, too, it’s not clear in all cases that the English were superior; Urien of Rheged managed to pen the king of Bernicia up on an island off the coast, for example, that Anglian kingdom effectively reduced briefly to a few acres. Bernicia was no match for the hegemony Rheged briefly had. Was it a stable unit, no, but neither was Bernicia. Rheged there marched with several other kingdoms, so there was assemblage going on, but do the blocks here have to have been tiny? It retained a bishopric, after all.10 I see no need for the tiny-then-bigger pattern to be true for the whole island.

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent

Map of the lathes and hundreds of Kent; note the big divisions west versus the small chopped-up ones east

I would go further, and say that one model won’t do here anyway, even in the lowland zones. Every piece of local comparative work that gets done in England seems to stress variation. East Kent did not form like West Kent; one hundred in Suffolk is not like another… it goes on and on.11 Some of these places do seem to see new settlement that becomes determinant of their identity, but we can think of other ways too. The written sources even nudge at them a little bit. Mostly the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that such and such a royal line arrived in three ships and defeated the Britons who resisted their arrival at a place that’s now named after them. This is self-evidently a trope but it at least tells us that the royal line later on had a tradition that they’d come from outside. The sources, such as they are, don’t do this for Bernicia, just saying that Ida took the kingdom, and I’m not the first person to use this and the archæology to suggest that Bernicia, which after all is an Anglian kingdom with a Celtic name, was more of a takeover by its own military (who presumably identified as Anglians, however many things that might actually have meant in terms of extraction or origin) than a settlement.12 Not exactly lowland, you may say, and fair enough but there are similar things that can be said about London and maybe Lincoln. With Lincoln it’s just an argument based on a series of kings of Lindsey with apparently-British names but with London, where there is confusing archæology and no textual evidence of any kind between 457 and 600, the argument is based on a ring of early place-names, all at places that were never very large (Braughing, Bengeo, Mimms, Yeading, Tottenham, Twickenham, Ealing, Harrow and so on), more or less circling the town, which the person who was making this argument, Keith Bailey, suggested might show an orchestrated establishment of settlers as a kind of perimeter defence. That then implies some unit of a considerable size, presumably centred on the old Roman city, but then so does the term Middlesex, which was already not a kingdom or a recognisable people (at least not one that Bede thought worth mentioning) by 600, because by then London was in Essex and the King of Kent held property in it.13 But it obviously had been, or there’d be no name.

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period

Early settlements around London in the Anglo-Saxon period, from Keith Bailey's "The Middle Angles"

So, in this paradigm, small-scale settlement and large political units might go together, albeit, I will admit, not for very long. But that’s what I’m talking about: British breakdown and Anglo-Saxon build-up at the same time. I use those ethnicity terms as if they meant something, but with this kind of process going on I doubt any outsider would have been able to tell the difference between British and English in areas like this; it would be a political affiliation, based perhaps on what king you did military service for, something which you might be able to change a few times if you were clever. I suspect that concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders, who would need it to justify their position, than the rank and file, until one such ethnicity became clearly dominant in an area and it was necessary to belong. Anyway: this is anything but socio-economic analysis, I realise, and perhaps to make such comment is only to recognise that Chris wasn’t, despite the size of the book, trying to solve the entire problem of the Transformation of the Roman World (as you might call it) in one go. He also invites the reader to consider, before really getting going, whether any quarrels they might have would damage the argument of the book.14 I don’t pretend that I’ve raised any such issues (and if I thought I had such issues to raise, I wouldn’t do it via blog-posts). It’s just some extra possibilities that might add a few spots of seasoning to a thoroughly nourishing book. Some dessert will follow in another post.


1. In his “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, at p. 224 of the reprint.

2. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 72-80 but also passim; as with any comparative work this one is difficult to cite well because the same themes come up again and again. A clearer statement of this point could be found in Wickham, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Cf. Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 112-137 & esp. p. 124.

3. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 268-272.

4. Ibid., pp. 303-379, definitions addressed at pp. 303-306.

5. Here the Halsall comparison would better come from Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barnarian West 450-900 (London 2003), pp. 119-133. For Norway I’m thinking of the First Viking Age (classically described in Peter Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 2nd edn. (London 1971)) and for Wales I’m thinking of when King Cædwallon of Gwynedd killed King Edwin of Northumbria in 633.

6. Described very well, albeit with the ideological bent you’d expect from sixties East Berlin scholarship (or rather, that the establishment demanded from it) in Eckhard M¨ller-Mertens, Karl der Grosse, Ludwig der Fromme, und die Freien. Wer waren die Liberi Homines der Karolingischen Kapitularien (742/743-832)? Ein Beitrag zur Sozialgeschichte und Sozialpolitik des Frankenreiches, Forschungen zur Mittelalterlichen Geschichte 10 (Berlin 1963).

7. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 306-333 & 339-364 (to which cf. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 311-319 & 357-368); see also the sweeping but careful description of national historiographies in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, pp. 1-5.

8. Halsall as above and Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

9. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38.

10. M. R. McCarthy, “Thomas, Chadwick and post-Roman Carlisle” in Susan M. Pearce (ed.), The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland: studies presented to C. A. Ralegh Radford arising from a conference organised in his honour by the Devon Archaeological Society and Exeter City Museum, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 102 (Oxford 1982), pp. 241-256.

11. Kent: Nicholas Brooks, “The Creation and Early Structure of the Kingdom of Kent” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Leicester 1989), pp. 56-74 esp. pp. 67-74, and now Stuart Brookes, “The lathes of Kent: a review of the evidence” in Brookes, S. Harrington and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Studies in Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology: Papers in Honour of Martin G. Welch, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 527 (Oxford 2011), pp. 156-170 (non vidi, but I saw a Leeds paper using some of what I assume is the same research that pointed this way). Suffolk: Peter Warner, “Pre-Conquest Territorial and Administrative Organization in East Suffolk” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 9-34.

12. That person, as far as I know, would be Brian Hope-Taylor in his Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), pp. 276-324; cf. David N. Dumville, “The origins of Northumbria: some aspects of the British background” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 213-222.

13. London’s archæology is ever-changing but the best recent synthesis I know is Alan Vince, Saxon London: an archaeological investigation (London 1990). This argument, however, and the following graphic, are more or less lifted entire from Keith Bailey, “The Middle Saxons”, in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 108-122, the map being fig. 8.2. I’m slightly disturbed to see that his cite for the idea of orchestrated settlement is John Morris, to wit Londonium: London in the Roman Empire (London 1982, rev. edn. 1998), p. 334 of the 1st edn., cit. Bailey. “Middle Saxons”, pp. 112-113 n. 52, but despite Morris’s well-known oddity this seems to be a bit that makes sense, to me. On Lindsey, since you already have the volume out by now, see Bruce Eagles, “Lindsey” in Bassett, Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 202-212.

14. Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, p. 9.

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72 responses to “If I were inclined to argue with Chris Wickham…

  1. This is a really good post and I’ve been trying to figure out how to reply without it turning into a post of my own. I’m pretty much in the “demand-generation” camp myself – not much good producing something nobody wants. But I don’t think it’s universal. I’m less convinced that polities were as complete economic drivers as Wickham suggests. At the elite level this seems to be largely true but I’m less convinced of this for exchange lower on the food chain. Even for Rome there appears to have been a lot of movement of items in regional networks between, say, Germanic auxiliaries living West of the Rhine and those living on the East side without the Empire having much to do with it, excepting the fact of moving the auxiliary to join the military. Not that I could hope to hold my own with him in an argument. I should probably re-read _Framing_ and brush up on the details.

    Related to luxury items, Florin Curta had an interesting article, “The Amber Trail in Early Medieval Europe,” in Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz, eds., New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2007). In it he argues that the amber trade substantially involved gift-giving rather than commercial exchange and suggests that the movement of other luxury items may often have been gifts and should be explored further.

    • Knew I was forgetting something. the title of Chazelle and Lifshitz is _Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies_.

      • Ah yes, I’ve not seen it but I remember thinking that it was odd how much basically empirical stuff there was in the volume given the waffly theoretical title. Professor Curta is of course there pursuing what I now think of as The Grierson Objection, and therefore I am sympathetic already, but I’ll have to have a look.

        It’s really difficult, I think, to get our twenty-first century heads round the economics of commercial exchange in the early Middle Ages, because the advent of advertising and mass media separates us from the early medieval buying public. It’s all very well that Ipswich is producing these, hey, really nice tablewares, better than what the chap in the next village makes I mean those hardly stand up! and so on, but how do people find out? Presumably some merchant takes a punt on being able to sell them, but for something with a spread like Ipswich Ware, there’s a massively parallel mechanism going on; can it really just be slow capillary take-up and fashion transfer or is there actually some marketing going on? How much can a producer in this epoch do to stimulate demand, in other words? I don’t think we’ve actually theorised exchange and commerce enough yet that we can really rule on supply vs. demand except in really obvious cases like the annona and military supply (where we have evidence for that).

        • I’ve often wondered if, from the supply-side, an elite might receive a gift, his or her social circle then sees it, and they start with the “Where did you get that?” line of inquiry which eventually results in a market and exchange network. Unfortunately, this kind of origin and evolution doesn’t show up in the sources very well. Now if every Carolingian Count had ended up with an elephant in his backyard within a few years of Charlemagne receiving his we’d have much clearer evidence of this sort of development!

          • That is the obvious answer, isn’t it, but I wonder how well it scales up, how it works at non-élite levels (as with the pottery) and exactly what the agencies are. There is presumably some anthropological work on this that could be exploited, I must ask my Anthropologist of Resort.

  2. Nice juicy main course here: many thanks. (I knew I should have bought that book while it was 50% off…, but it is such a brick and there’s only so much room in a suitcase unless you’re Mary Poppins.) A couple of thoughts occur, in not-nearly-as fleshed-out form as yours, but nonetheless….
    First, re. climate – and I think you may have made some of these points yourself elsewhere – that climate change doesn’t occur evenly and similarly everywhere, so we have to take care in making the grand argument from localized archeological and other scientific data. However, in general I buy the argument that climate and environment are elements of the wholistic system affecting human society, including its agricultural and economic facets. (If I get the courage, I may even go over to The Edge and get between you and Guy as the nominated ‘science person’ on this one… Or not… Anyway.) Putting the two together, should we not consider the possibilities that local effects of ‘warming’ (or whatever) were decreased production potential – coupling supply/demand and climate differently from the ways you and others have been assuming? I’m not across the specific evidence, and I admit this is a purely hypothetical musing, but worth a moment’s pause?
    Second, re. sub-Roman Britain – localised differences in economic collapse were part of the excellent plenary given at the IMC by Robin Fleming – were you there? If not, I’ll look out my notes for you in due course, and in any case much of it may have come from her _Britain After Rome_, but I hazard the statement that the material culture approach she put forward supports your suggestion that ‘tiny-then-bigger’ will not do as a universal model.
    Looking forward to dessert. :)

    • I’m not sure anyone should try and get between me and Guy when there’s an actual argument going! But it is feasible that science might help; I am trying to stay up with it as a layman, at least a little bit, not least because I have some investment in what the next generation has to face and I’m hoping it won’t be too bad yet… Local variation, yes, absolutely, I have indeed touched on this before and we are seeing it now in Catalonia with the Torres wineries moving off the plains of Penedès where they can no longer really grow vines and back into the mountains where the vines grew in the eleventh century. They of course have that option but for a peasant family or even a local lord seeing the land cease to yield would have been a rather nastier experience and I’m sure some people are on the end of it there even now, and if not of course we could point at large dustbowl parts of Kenya etc.

      I didn’t see Professor Fleming’s plenary, I had a meeting instead alas, but I guessed from the title that it probably bore close resemblance to the IHR paper I saw her give a little while ago. What you now say however makes me think differently and I will have to make that book an actual priority, at least before I give the relevant lecture again! Thankyou as ever for the careful thinking in the feedback!

      • Now you have me worried that the *localised* aspects of the metal recycling phenomenon really only came up in questions and not in the main address… However, back to the book, and all will no doubt be revealed!

        • That’s got to be very difficult, though, because it’s resource-dependent. Only areas that had lots of Roman stone and metal bracing, and Roman ceramics, in the first place will show extensive reuse, presumably. Though it would be fascinating (and another way to argue with Chris) if it were otherwise…

  3. Very interesting post Jonathan. Must buy the book now.

  4. I am absolutely on-board for simultaneous break-down and build-up, as well as stressing variation. It seems to me almost curious that people still kick around rather monolithic models — “Oh, well, perhaps Roman Britain became Anglo-Saxon Britain like _this_ …” — when in practice it all seems to have been a bit of a mess, fashioned into something (by the later Welsh, or the later English, or any of us now, whoever we are) that looks more orderly in hindsight.

    And speaking of hindsight, I would also even wonder if “concern with ethnicity and origins was more of an issue for the leaders”, or at least if leaders had any concern for ethnicity and origins beyond the relatively immediately personal or familial. What you want as a warlord, after all, is a group of retainers who buy-in to your personal “myth of leadership” regardless of where they are or their parents were from. Sure, if I am an English-speaking (or British-speaking) warlord, I will find it convenient and practical that all my followers buy-in to my language in the hall or on the battlefield — but that may be about the end of it. After all, such glimpses of the “heroic age life” that British or Germanic poetry reveal suggest that any given early Germanic or Celtic leader quite probably had a relatively “pluri-tribal” band of retainers — and in post-Roman Britain, that is (IMO) likely to have often meant a band of people with perhaps quite different first languages (Archaic Neo-Brittonic, to use Koch’s term, or some Late NWGmc dialect or “Mischdialekt”). The whole “Celt v. Saxon” ethnic thing with which we think we are familiar may not be entirely without foundation in the period, but one gets the sense that it became more of a trope for writers in later Wales once power blocks were larger, say in the 9th-10th centuries, and then way over-amplified by Romantically Nationally crazed 19th-century types.

    That’s, of course, all sort of off the cuff and probably lacking in the kind of memory jogs that additional coffee would provide, but, anyway ….. :)

    • The whole “Celt v. Saxon” ethnic thing with which we think we are familiar may not be entirely without foundation in the period…

      I am beginning to decide, privately you understand, that really the key difference is: mead or beer in the hall? Mead, you’re British, beer, you’re English. Wine, you would like to still be Roman; what are you even doing in a hall? That’s all there is to it. When mead starts to come up in Anglo-Saxon texts, like the Battle of Maldon, then you know the populations have assimilated. Problem solved! I’m just waiting for the archæology funding to roll in…

      • I could find it within myself to participate in that research. :)

        Hmmm, would such identity-proclaiming drink choices amongst actors in post-Roman Britain be reflected in identity-proclaiming drink choices amongst modern researchers ….? Or is there no correspondence in the strategies of studied and studiers? :)

        • I have observed before now – though not under strict experimental conditions – that there is some element of disciplinary preference as to alcohol. I find literature types and European-focussed medievalists more likely to be drinking wine, Anglo-Saxonists and high medieval English types, plus also archæologists, more likely to be on the beer, and anthropologists likely to be drinking anything they can find that you’ve never heard of. Scientists will probably be on weird spirits cocktails. Now, here again, this could just be my own weakness for generalisation, and I think the observational data needs checking with a deliberate program of investigation… But the wine-beer thing does seem to correlate!

          • Hmm, one limitation could be a skewing of results due to a general lack of mead in contemporary contexts. We’d need to look for a workaround of some sort!

            • It’s true, mead is rare enough that there does tend to be a rush for it when it’s available whatever the context. We would have to have a series of fully-funded open bars arranged in a variety of academic contexts. And of course careful quality-testing would be needed to make sure that people’s natural preferences weren’t being interfered with by the produce itself…

          • I’m all for a systematic program of research into this matter – but then, I would be. ;p

            Dunno about the scientist-cocktail thing. Doesn’t apply to physiologists of my acquaintance. And the high-medieval/beer thing is really only true of me in pubs, where the beer is likely to be decent, and the wine is likely to be more or less undrinkable… (We need to control for regional and/or national background, since Melbournites are frequently [if not invariably] wine snobs…) But then, these are merely anecdotal data! What we need is some kind of double blind arrangement of medievalists from all corners of the globe in a room full of tasty drinks in which choices are plotted against individuals _before_ their discipline is revealed, and complicated statistical overlays applied to allow for such confounding variables.

            There’s got to be a grant somewhere in the world that would fund us to set this up! Allons-y!

      • I’m sure you could get some breweries behind you.

  5. Pingback: All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Post Script « badonicus

  6. War leadership WAS an economic resource. Can you read Italian? If so, get hold of a copy of AA Sattia’s Rapine, assedi, battaglie: la guerra nel Medio Evo, which shows that the main activity of mediaeval war was plunder, and that – while the impact over the whole of Europe was probably negative – victorious campaigns were also wholly positive events for those who took part in them, economically speaking. It is a masterpiece and a game-changer in terms of the whole way of thinking about war in mediaeval times, and I find it tragic that it has not been translated into English. It makes obsolete practically everything that is being written about mediaeval war even now.

    • I’m not denying the economic importance of warfare at all, though I think for the period at issue here it is very hard to measure except in cattle. There is also work stressing this point in English, especially by Timothy Reuter and Guy Halsall, so it’s not a new point of view to me. The point I was trying to make here was, if you’ll forgive me going all Bordieu, that the symbolic capital of war-leadership also needs considering when we’re talking about ability to dominate. My Italian’s probably not good enough to tackle Settia’s book but I ought at least to have a look.

      • “,,,it is very hard to measure except in cattle.” And your point is? If cattle is the measure of wealth, then cattle raiding is significant in itself – and I would remind you that a whole class of Irish storytelling, including the native great epic, was dedicated to Tains or cattle-raids. The historical Taliesin repeatedly praises his lords, Urien in particular, because they can raid anyone and no-one can raid them (Gwallawg’s cattle “was never seen in another’s pound”). Remember that to measure wealth in gold, let alone in US Dollars, is as arbitrary as to measure it in beef.

        • I’m not attempting to do so, but there is a shift from one to the other over the period. There is also lots of evidence of treasure both in texts and from the ground, and yet it is not what is stolen and looted, at least not in those same texts.

          You’re OK with Taliesin’s stories about Urien and not those of ‘Nennius’ I see. I would obviously have to read you more deeply before I could really understand your use of the sources.

  7. I am certain you are wholly wrong about ethnicity in Britain, and not only because the hatred between British and English is written in the very earliest documents, beginning with Gildas and Bede. I have a lot more reasons, but to see them you would have to read through my whole online work on History of Britain, 407-597 – and that’s half a million words. I am not saying that you would be too lazy to check – quite the opposite – but you don’t know me from Adam and as far as you are concerned I am probably a crank. Still, if you want to give it a try, here is the link: http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/fabio/contents.htm

    • If you can generate half a million words on a period with so little evidence in it, you are working at a different level from me, that’s for certain! However, I think that we should avoid thinking that hatred, even if expressed in ethnic terms, necessarily implies an actual ethnic difference. We could find similar modes of expression (and extreme antipathy) between modern football teams or the Constantinople chariot factions, where in both cases only expressed loyalty (and chosen dress) would make any difference visible. To instance another of the “earliest documents”, Y Gododdin, the host of 300 heroes there assembled comes from at least five different kingdoms in at least two different islands, kingdoms that would at other times fight each other just as readily. The host then attacks Deira, not the closer Bernicia, whereas the kings assembled under Urien of Rheged would attack Bernicia not Deira. If this was gens vs. gentem the targeting is extremely hard to explain. Strategy and opportunism, with appropriate `team’ names applied, makes better sense to me of the jumble of affiliations and loyalties we otherwise have to squeeze into an ethnic scheme.

      • Urien of Rheged’s supposed assault on Bernicia I argue to be a much later legend written by someone who had no idea of sixth-century reality and of the differing ranks of British kings; but, again, I don’t have the space to give a reason. And the different relationship between British and English as compared to the various hostilities and alliances within the two areas is evident not only in such events as Cadwallon’s attempted extermination of all the English north of the Humber – for which Bede is both a reliable witness and by no means the only one – but also in the native rhetoric on both sides. To be unable to see any difference between levels and depths of conflict is a disastous modern trend that, for instance, leaves contemporaries unable to understand the real nature of Muslim internal and external politics, even where they have clear and succinct guides such as the Arabic proverb: “Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; but me, my brother and my cousin against the rest.”

        • Urien of Rheged’s supposed assault on Bernicia I argue to be a much later legend written by someone who had no idea of sixth-century reality

          It can’t be that much later, it’s referred to in the Welsh Triads. Would you redate those too? It’s not that I don’t see any differences between the various levels of conflict; I simply don’t see any basis to create a theory of practice (Bordieu again, sorry) such as your Muslim rule by which those levels might be described consistently. Could we find any such rule that wasn’t honoured more i’the breach than th’observance? and if so, what basis would we have for generalising it to other groups?

          I think, meanwhile, that point about the multi-ethnic army of the Gododdin still presents a problem for your way of thinking that mine avoids, as does their apparent avoidance of Bernicia. Perhaps you also cover these issues in your work.

          • And the Welsh Triads are how late? IIRC, the manuscripts that refer to them belong to the fourteenth century. There is certain evidence in them of forgetting and misunderstanding, not just of Gildasian-age events, but of events much later; that is the view of Rachel Bromwich herself. And it strikes me that you lay far too much emphasis on theory. If we have manuscripts in which hatred between Saxons and Wealhas is set out as a given, you have no right to reduce that to a minor phenomenon thanks to some theory or other; it is the theory that fails, not the evidence.

            • It was also the view of the late Dr Bromwich that the core material of the two manuscripts was seventh- and ninth-century respectively, though, largely due to the replacement of figures of the Gildasian age, including Urien, by Arthur between the two recensions.

              As for theory, I may have misled by accidentally quoting Bordieu. I don’t think I’ve a theory here, whereas I find that an assumption that what we understand by a race or an ethnicity is what the sixth century understood by one is itself a theory and one that much work over the last twenty years has damaged. I for my part perceive a lot of evidence that I can’t easily reconcile with a continuous and clear opposition of two parties for hundreds of years, especially at the beginning of a period in which the identities involved were still in formation. I also think that our evidence of such antipathy is for the élites, who actually fought each other (rather than the people who owned the cattle), and that we see, as I keep saying, in Y Gododdin especially but also with the alliance of Cadwallon and Penda or Beowulf or whatever heroic literature you care to invoke that such bands of professionals were formed of anyone who cared to take service with their leader, of whatever extraction. Again, a modern football team seems like a good analogy: Inter Milan is an Italian team wherever its players, or indeed managers, come from. I don’t think that reading the texts this way does them violence; in fact, as I say, I think it makes them easier to reconcile with each other. But I’ve said this three times now, and I don’t think I can find a way of saying it that will convince you. Yours, from the Moon,
              Jonathan

        • Cadwallon’s attempted extermination of all the English north of the Humber

          I struggle considerably with this as a symptom of implacable ethnic opposition, you know, given that Cadwallon had Anglian allies from Mercia in his attack! Surely this is the textbook case of racial, and indeed religious, difference being put aside for strategic reasons!

          • And Adolf Hitler allied himself with Stalin to destroy the Poles. So what? If Cadwallon had survived his little experiment in racially correct governance, I have little doubt that the Mercians would have been next on his list. Or maybe it might have been the men of Lindsey and East Anglia, who knows? What is certain is that English settlements were targeted for racial reasons – because they were English; and that Cadwallon’s war did not spare women or children, not even to enslave them. Anyone who claims that this was not motivated by racial hate is living on the Moon; and anyone who claims that this was the rule of war in even the most savage of Dark Age periods is arguing against the evidence. As for why Cadwallon targeted Northumbria first, I have argued that he was by descent a Gododdin, from the eastern side of the old border, and that the new-risen kingdom of Northumbria (remember it was barely twenty years old) had devastated and conquered his ancestral lands. That is also surely why he was successful in his first assault: without a doubt, he had plenty of support from conquered Britons inside the borders of Edwin’s little empire. A passage in the Life of Wilfrid tells us that not only were there empty lands in Northumbria (after Cadwallon’s fall) that were still claimed by British monasteries and church bodies, but that there were so many that Wilfrid was able to have them for his new episcopal see of Ripon just for the asking.

  8. Frankly, I struggle to see a great deal of “Celt vs. Saxon” conflict in the sources that actually seems predicated on ethnic distinctions. Sure, people like Gildas were aware that “Saxons” could be distinguished from “Britons”, and it was doubtless easy enough to observe that having lots of “Saxons” banging about the place was not necessarily raising property values (yet), but Gildas save perhaps even more venom for erstwhile (and at least nominally) “British” leaders than he does for “Saxons”. And even in this case, one might imagine that the particular perspective of a vituperative British churchman might not have been the perspective of a mead-and/or-beer-swilling warlord’s retainer. The multi-ethnic Gododdin host is perhaps realistically on target for the period regardless of when we think it might be written. There were doubtless places that remained British-speaking or became English-speaking faster than others — but warlords’ retainers were perhaps a “pluri-national” professional class who had a close on on where their bread was buttered (or, in the event, mead-and/or-beer was poured). One might well imagine that the hazy and inclusive archaeological evidence for fixing nationality indeed reflects a hazy and inconclusive reality.

    In contrast, I _do_ see more interest by later writers — perhaps more often Welsh ones in Wales (and not, for example, Asser!) — in viewing the past through ethnically tinted goggles. But that’s really more in the vein of grumbling after the fact, IMO.

  9. Unless the ‘Saxons’ did indeed slaughter thousands of British warriors and their descendants, I would have thought they had to have used Britons (and whomever else they could get their hands on) in their warbands. It may have been partially the reason why they were successful. Judging by the lack of ‘Saxon’ cemeteries in the south, they either used Britons, or we just haven’t found these sites yet.

    However, there must have been regional (and civitates) variations in how the ‘Saxons’ both operated and were perceived. There may indeed have been those who slaughtered and were known, feared and hated for it, and those who were ‘accepted’. This also must have changed from year to year or generation to generation. You may even have had leaders who worked on ethnically or religiously pure grounds (latter day Hitlers), and those that didn’t give a hoot … possibly the majority.

    Gildas’s perspective may have been from his own region (and ‘history’ as it had been passed to him) and via word of mouth. If that word of mouth was from fellow churchmen then we can expect it to be skewed. He’s also not likely to mention anything other than slaughter to make his point. He may have experienced almost a generation of peace with the easterners before he wrote (depending on which date he did write DEB) and he was more concerned about civil war. He had to make the point about the enemy and their ever present threat as divine retribution to shake those kings out of their wicked ways. It doesn’t mean what he said wasn’t true, but it’s hard to discern just how true. There is also no way he would know the ethnic make-up of those that had been causing the trouble one and two generation before. Or if he did, by his time they would be ‘Saxons’ no matter what their actual ethnic descendants were.

  10. I have two things to say.
    One is that booty – in a specifically early medieval context (i.e. 5th-9th century) has been hugely overplayed. There are spectacular examples of booty making a real difference (Charlemagne vs the Avars is the obvious one) but in most cases the movable wealth of the early medieval west was probably too low for enormous riches to be acquired by raiding – the only way really to make money was y the very risky expedient of defeating the enemy army in battle. War was in my view more profitable in ‘intangibles': patronage, promotion, entry into particular political circles, maintenance of positions dependant upon warrior ideologies. I expect I am only repeating what you are arguing, Jon, but in different words.

    The other point I wanted to make is that I think the idea of a binary struggle between ‘Britons’ on one side and ‘Saxons’ on the other finds little or no support in the sources. Largely it is a creation of writers from later in the early middle ages – and specifically those writing their works at specific points in time. It’s also part and parcel – the local manifestation – of the invasions myth, that the main feature of the C5th was warfare between invading barbarians and defending Romans, something for which there is almost no actual evidence. If the C5th was like this in Britain it’d be the only part of the western empire where the 5th century was characterised by such a bipolar struggle. And we have no evidence at all to suggest that it was such an exception (largely because we have pretty much no evidence at all for C5th/6th political history in Britain). Such evidence as we have can be read in quite different ways – not least for what it actually says rather than what people from the 8th century onwards thought it ought to be saying – and so can the archaeology, once one shakes yourself free of the tyranny of the old narrative. I expect I’m not surprising you here either… My ‘Worlds of Arthur’ book will try and set out some of these new ideas at greater length.

    • I should like to click “Like”, but then we’re not on FaceBook here! :)

      • I do have the option of `Like’ buttons on this site but I’ve always thought I would rather have people say something than silently stick up an anonymous electronic thumb. Would persons other than this Viking reprobate here be pleased to have them?

    • It does sound as if we’re on roughly the same page here but then that isn’t surprising because some of the pages I’m on I took from the work of this Halsall fellow… I am finding Barbarian Migrations a very useful foil to Chris’s book, because while I think the Halsall and Wickham takes are not so very incompatible, they do address different questions and the things that are reckoned important from a particular phenomenon or episode differ between the books. Both of them make the other one easier to think about.

      • Whilst there are many criticisms of Stuart Laycock’s book ‘Britannia – The Failed State’, he makes an interesting point about the complete breakdown to small units before building back up to kingdoms, and that is that when they did build back up they just happen to go back to almost the same civitates boundaries they once were. As he says, it’s like smashing up a jigsaw puzzle, throwing it up in the air and having it come back down as the original puzzle. Any thoughts?

        • I’d have to read it, but do we really know enough about where the civitas boundaries were to be able to say such a thing? Surely they were frequently adjusted, as were the provincial ones! I would admit we can see that civitas centres often recovered importance, but I don’t think that’s as surprising or inexplicable; they would have been visible, even if mostly deserted, and I think that unless there’s more known about the Roman state’s local organisation here than I thought, to assume those centres occupied the same areas to any great degree would involve some smoothing-out of lines and so on! But maybe I’m wrong, Roman Britain is a darker area for me than the actual Dark Ages…

          • Your thoughts are exactly what I would question: how do we know exactly were the civitates were and how much they kept their boundaries in Post Roman times. I’m probably not doing Stuart Laycock justice with my explanation of his work, but I think he makes relevant point along the way. I probably should do some direct quotes, but I don’t want to take up too much of your comment space!

  11. Book arrived. My, that’s a tome!

  12. The problem with Stuart Laycock’s idea is that everything he says about civitates in Britainnia could be said on the basis of much stronger evidence for Gaul, and the conclusion he draws from it would be seen to be completely wrong! I don’t think, myself, that the evidence for fragmentation into tiny autonomous units in ritain is at all compelling, if (unlike practically everyone who writes about post-imperial Britain) you have any knowledge of the contemporary situation in the large land-mass on the other side of the Channel. But I said all that in Barbarian Migrations.

    • To that, I can only say (and it’s a Devil’s advocate kind of position) that Chris, who undoubtedly has that wider perspective, still winds up arguing for almost-complete fragmentation. I seem to have settled on a way to argue something from each of you, but why do you suppose there’s this difference in how the two of you read the evidence?

      (I have never succeeded in getting Chris to comment here and I doubt even this will start him, but it is worth bearing in mind he does read.)

      • Having now read some of his arguments (although I admit I had to jump sections) I think he puts a good case. However, even he acknowledges that this is only one model and possible explanation of the evidence for what happened in Britain and there could be (and are) others. He also does a great job, I think, at showing the _differences_ between what happened in the various regions of Gaul and what happened in Britain and shows a better comparison with what went on in Mauritania with the Berbers.

    • Now I must remember to get Fail State and Barbarian Migrations and read them side by side — or at least one after another. I’ve never read Laycock, and I can easily imagine he goes rather too far in his interpretation, or perhaps down the wrong path, but even so his ideas seem interesting and worth reading — if perhapsv not worth signing up for as such.

  13. I think ‘Failed State’ is worth the read, even if he has gone too far with some theories (I believe many think that he really did go too far with his latest book!). ‘Warlords’ isn’t bad either. I haven’t read ‘Barbarian Migrations’ yet. Another one for the long list! (£20.39 at Amazon!).

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  15. I’ve spent the last month thinking, “Huh, I oughta get a copy of this …”, but whilst shuffling things around just discovered I _do_. :) Now all I need is time enough to read it before it disappears back into the swirling vortex once more …. ;)

    • The vortex works in mysterious ways, Carl. At least you hadn’t alreqady forked out for a second copy!

      • This will take even you a fair amount of time to read, Carl. I’ve got bogged down by other things in the section on cities: one of the other things that this book has me realising is that I really don’t find cities an interesting topic of study…

        • I confess a general dislike of cities — but that is by the by! No, the chances of me having the leisure to sit down to read this (or any) book in a relatively linear fashion are admittedly slight. But I may go rummaging for the “provocative” bits on sub-Roman Britain. (More a pleasant neighbouring place to visit than a main focus for me, but plenty of useful ideas — as well as some good, but not necessarily useful ideas :) — turn up in such ramblings.)

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  21. Peasants can always consume potentially surplus grain by raising more children and by keeping their old folk alive for longer. They can also feed their pigs and have a meatier diet. By the way, I understand that there’s a lot of doubt about the wisdom of applying “Celtic” to the denizens of these islands, as distinct (I assume) from their speech. Have I got that right?

    • Absolutely to the latter; it’s become as shaky a term as `Germanic’, although rather more actively defended among people who would apply it to themselves. Both terms still work in linguistic terms, but a language does not a descent community or race make…

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