On reading more Richard Hodges

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Cover of Richard Hodges's Goodbye to the Vikings?

Lately, or at least, as I first wrote this post it was lately, I have been chomping through Richard Hodges’s Goodbye to the Vikings?, which is a reprint volume containing ten of the controversial archæologist’s more recent papers and a couple of new bits.1 I was doing this because someone had asked me, in the then-continuing absence of Hodges’s update of his 1982 book Dark Age Economics, the one that made his name, whether there was anything relevant in this volume, and there is in fact an essay reprinted from W. A. van Es’s Festschrift called “Dark Age Economics Revisited”.2 Having skimmed that I thought I’d probably better read the book while I had it out of the library and having done that, I thought I might give some kind of account of it here.

I have been something of a fan of Hodges’s work, which I put down partly to its genuine quality—Dark Age Economics is legendarily impenetrable in parts but the other parts gave me a completely different view of the development of early medieval Western Europe than I could have got from anywhere else, and you’ve seen me praise his The Anglo-Saxon Achievement here before, even though I understand that it is not well-thought of3—but my adulation was doubtless also down to the way he habitually pitches his work. Only reading this volume has made this advertising strategy fully visible to me. Firstly, the reader is told that historians now have to give way to archæologists to fully understand the early medieval period, because texts have all these problems and there are only so many of them, whereas archæology on the other hand is always producing new stuff. Secondly, Hodges and his friends are the sole merchants of this new learning; it’s not that everyone else is stupid or blinkered, it’s just that the sites Hodges chooses to be interested in or is excavating are presented as the most exciting, significant and revolutionary ones there are. And, fair enough, Hamwic and San Vincenzo al Volturno really have changed our ideas about early medieval material culture and its interconnections. I’m less convinced about the revolutionary potential of Butrint, its big significance appears to be more or less ‘sites in Albania surprisingly like sites elsewhere on Balkan coast despite Albanian exceptionalism’.4 But, never mind that; the point is that the revolution is always happening right now, because of this new site, even though when you go back to Hodges’s earliest work you realise that this has now been his line for thirty years.

This kind of presentation, pursued with relentless energy and a considerable writing productivity, is a big part of what makes Hodges’s work exciting.5 It may therefore have been a mistake to combine so many papers that pitch this line from so many different eras in the one book, as one starts to wonder why the revolution hasn’t yet happened. It must not be 1998 yet! and so on. We have a mission statement of an introduction, revised heavily from a piece in Archaeology magazine, which is then reprised in the conclusion (new in the volume); its agendas are also picked up in a chapter on Pirenne, and somewhat in the van Es tribute piece. More England-focussed pieces reprise the themes of The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, and one paper on Butrint (or, more interestingly, on the politics of Albanian archæology) stands rather alone. There is also a solid seventy pages pulled out of various publications on San Vincenzo al Volturno, and these are perhaps the most valuable because they have been very well-chosen to give an overall view of the site and its significance, and also present some change in its evaluation over time.6 It may be significant that Hodges says in his introduction that these are the pieces he hasn’t revised.7 This also means that you can see the spin developing, mind, as we move from the presentation of the place that he published as A Dark Age Pompeii (because of the site’s rapid destruction and abandonment in 881 after a Saracen attack) to a more nuanced one incorporating a durée plus longue that chooses explicitly not to see the site as a Pompeii-like snapshot.8 The reader doesn’t get this shift in thinking in order, but one can see it happening. Only very rarely, however, does Hodges reflect on his own views; even in “Dark Age Economics Revisited” this is kept to a minimum compared to lining up more data in pursuit of the original study’s aims. So it always looks new and exciting.

The volume mainly impressed me with style, then, but that shouldn’t be taken to diminish the quality of the actual data or analysis, just the way it’s presented. Actually you can learn a lot from this volume, even if you might learn less if you’ve already read The Anglo-Saxon Achievement or (especially) Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne.9 Sometimes, however, just sometimes, the presentation has got on top of the sense. So with a paper called “Charlemagne’s Elephant”, which is quite fun in its way, using the elephant as a synecdoche of the long-range trade routes of Charlemagne’s era, and especially with the title article, “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, originally only two pages in History Today, which expands one of the other piece’s ideas.10 The core idea will look familiar to anyone who’s followed either Guy Halsall’s take on the fall of the Roman Empire or me telling you about that here; just as Guy argues that the fall of the Empire caused the barbarian invasions and not vice versa, so here Hodges argues that it was the collapse of the trade and patronage networks of Charlemagne’s era as the Carolingian Empire broke up that created the massive Scandinavian attacks of the First Viking Age. The problem with this as pitched by Hodges, however, is twofold. Firstly, of course, it falls victim to the Grierson Objection, that not all goods move by trade.11 This looks particularly obvious when Hodges pauses to marvel at how the towns of the English Danelaw, created out of almost nothing, could start and sustain a good silver coinage where Northumbria itself had only had copper coins before the Vikings arrive. Leaving aside that that copper coinage is now being seen as a sign of commercialisation, I tell you, the words Danegeld or tribute do not feature here; it’s all trade.12 No matter how important long-distance trade may or may not have been, there is something missing here.

Then of course there’s the chronology. It is certainly true that the bulk of the Viking attacks occurred in the second half of the ninth century and thereafter, and possibly even truer that the break-up of the Danish state has something to do with the collapse of its neighbour (which had been piling wealth into its various factions for a while) even if that process is obscure to us. But since the attacks began well before Charlemagne was even Emperor, it’s obviously not the whole answer, and then Timothy Reuter’s explanations based on richness and military over-stretch return to play and look very much as if they would explain both phases of activity.13 So: at the very least, I don’t think we can “say goodbye to the Vikings as we have known them”, if by that Hodges means forget that they appropriated wealth by many means and especially violence as well as trade.14 But also, although there is loads of good stuff here, the same things are made so much of so repeatedly that I am now much less anxious to read Dark Age Economics: a new audit than I was before it came out, because I suspect it will tell me rather less than I’d hoped, and this was not the result I expected from reading this volume.


1. R. Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006).

2. R. Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A. D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd ed. 1989); idem, “Dark Age Economics Revisited” in H. Sarfati, W. J.  Verwers & P. J. Woltering (edd.), Discussion with the Past: archaeological studies presented to W.A. van Es (Zwolle 1999), pp. 227-232; repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 63-71.

3. If you would like a less favourable view of that book, there is Nicholas Brooks’s review in Speculum Vol. 68 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 170-172, which lambasts Hodges for “factual errors and misleading inferences that pervade the whole book” (p. 172), and concludes (ibid.):

It is good for historians and archaeologists to be provoked into rethinking the fundamental development of early English society, but this book is a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, many of his assertive conjectures will attract blind support. Had he indulged his penchant for the latest anthropological theories at the start, had he administered our dose of “commoditisation” before the last chapter, we could have been sure that only reviewers would have struggled with the whole book!

I deduce from the opening satire of Hodges’s stand against élite-driven text-based history (much like mine above) that the writer of the The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (Leicester 1984) felt himself implicated in the critique, but that closing paragraph tells you quite a lot about both book and reviewer.

4. Although the article here about Butrint, Hodges & W. Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts? Nationalism and the Question of Rural Continuity in Albania” in Neil Christie (ed.), Landscapes of Change: rural evolution in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (Aldershot 2004), pp. 195-222, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 39-62, is interesting precisely because it tackles the historiography of that exceptionalism and does quite a lot to set the Albanian finds in context.

5. There are of course other things that are exciting about Hodges’s work too, and they might include, for example: a genuinely large-scale perspective with many comparanda; a theory-informed view of the economy, even of this period, as a system with rules that can be understood; an eye for the ordinary person in the record; and a good choice of illustrative anecdote. But the polemical prose certainly has to come in there too.

6. In order referred to, with reprint pages in brackets: R. Hodges, “The Not-So-Dark Ages” in Archaeology Vol. 51 no. 5 (Long Island City 1998), pp. 61-65, rev. as “Introduction: new light on the Dark Ages” (1-18); idem, “Pirenne and the Question of Demand in the Sixth Century” in W. Bowden & R. Hodges (edd.), The Sixth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 3 (Leiden 2003), pp. 3-14 (rev. 19-27); idem, “Dark Age EconomicsRevisited”; idem, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” (new 28-38); idem, “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157 (rev. 163-175); Hodges & Bowden, “Balkan Ghosts”; Hodges, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St. Gall” in R. Hodges (ed.), San Vincenzo al Volturno 2: the 1980-86 excavations, part II (London 1995), pp. 153-175 (80-116); Hodges, “Beyond Feudalism: monasteries and their management in the eighth and ninth centuries” in I longobardi dei ducati di Spoleto e Benevento: atti del XVI Congresso internazionale di studi sull’alto Medioevo, Spoleto, 20-23 ottobre 2002, Benevento 24-27 ottobre 2002 (Spoleto 2003), pp. 1077-1098 (141-156); Hodges, “The Ninth-Century Collective Workshop at San Vincenzo al Volturno” in J. Emerick (ed.), Archaeology in Architecture: essays in honour of Cecil Lee Striker (Mainz 2005), pp. 75-87 (117-140).

7. He says, p. viii:

Some essays have been either partially rewritten or modified for this book; others, such as those relating to the ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno (Italy), are unaltered. Even where the essays have been altered, I have not attempted to provide amplified bibliographies. To do this would belie the purpose of the book as impressionable sketches about general historical themes.

This leaves it fairly unclear what has been messed with how much, though all but the San Vincenzo chapters do have updated references.

8. R. Hodges, A Dark Age Pompeii: San Vincenzo al Volturno (London 1990); cf. idem, “San Vincenzo al Volturno and the Plan of St Gall” from five years later where he says, “The essence of modern archaeology is not what has been termed the ‘Pompeii premise’ – the prospect of finding a place fossilised from one moment in time (Binford 1981) – but the reverse, the opportunity to record how a place has evolved through time” (pp. 80-81 of the reprint, citing L. R. Binford, “Behavioural Archaeology and the ‘Pompeii Premise'” in Journal of Anthropological Research Vol. 37 (1981), pp. 195-208).

9. R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989), as rev. by Brooks, ref. n. 2 above; Hodges, Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000).

10. Hodges, “Charlemagne’s Elephant” in History Today Vol. 50 (London 2000), pp. 21-27, and “Goodbye to the Vikings?”, ibid. 54 (London 2004), pp. 29-30, repr. in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings?, pp. 72-79 & 157-162.

11. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

12. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, pp. 159-160 of the reprint:

Worse still, Northumbrian coins of the central decades of this period – the so-called stycas – contained pitiful measures of silver in their otherwise copper-rich contents (Hodges 1989: 162). How, we should be asking, did the Danish kings of Jorvik suddenly find the silver to replace the devalued Northumbrian currency with a silver-rich coinage meeting international standards?

He goes on to look for, but not explicitly to find, the explanation in the levels of monetisation demonstrated by the so-called ‘productive sites’, on which see Tim Pestell & Katharina Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in Early Medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003), in this case especially Mark Blackburn, “‘Productive’ Sites and the Pattern of Coin Loss in England, 600-1180″, pp. 20-36 there. Cf. also D. M. Metcalf, “The Monetary Economy of Ninth-Century England South of the Humber: a topographical analysis” in Mark Blackburn & David Dumville (edd.), Kings, Currencies and Alliances: history and coinage of southern England in the ninth century (Cambridge 1998), pp. 167-198.

13. T. Reuter, “Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 35 (London 1985), pp. 75-94, repr. in †Reuter, Medieval polities and modern mentalities, ed. Janet Nelson (Cambridge 2006), pp. 231-250.

14. Hodges, “Goodbye to the Vikings”, p. 162 of the reprint.

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30 responses to “On reading more Richard Hodges

  1. It reminds me of a story I used to hear about how certain distinguished early medieval archaeologists (wild horses would not drag their names from my lips) used to irritate specialists in other disciplines at interdisciplinary conferences by singing loudly and repeatedly ‘Only archaeeeeeeeooooology can reveal the truth!’

  2. Thanks v. much for that: it’s always jolly nice to discover thoughts never fully simmered in one’s own mind already boiled, sieved, clarified and decanted by someone else!
    The matter of the earlier viking raids is still a tricky one though isn’t it? One at least of your more august readers has argued that these shouldn’t be seen as low-level enterprises — and bits and pieces of evidence like that pesky 792 charter of Offa might well support such a position. But there’s no sure purchase here. If the successors of those early pagani marini cum classis migrantibus had opted to warm their toes by the hearth in the 830s and thereafter, I’m pretty sure we’d never have bothered to invent the Viking Age at all, in spite of Alcuin. Even 1962-vintage Peter Sawyer needed something a bit more chunky to constitute a menace of historical proportions, and of course it’s that later menace that sustains the popular sub-Alcuinian image of Vikings as little piratical groups scrunching up the sand under the walls of isolated monasteries. But what if the popular image is close enough (as it may well be), for the ‘first phase’ (a tendentious term if ever I saw one)? If the early raids of the sort we like to call ‘Viking’ were limited in number, scale and ambition, but hit some notable targets, do we really need to be fancying around with complex theories of causality in the late C8th? Unfashionably deterministic drivers like famine in 792 might have been sufficient (Mark Blackburn first pointed me at that one), and frankly there are more significant things going on involving Scandinavians. But at this stage, everything in the Scandinavian theatre gets subordinated to explaining Vikings (for some reason it’s not such an issue in the so-called Second Viking Age), in Anglophone scholarship at any rate. Once things really kick off later on in the C9th, the picture changes (whatever angle you look at it from). Trouble is, particularly once we’ve gone and called these guys Vikings with a capital V- (which in my book is about as helpful as calling everybody from the United States ‘Military Contractors’), we may already have made things difficult for ourselves by visiting the sins of the 830s and thereafter upon the fathers and grandfathers et al. of the new lot.
    This might be one jam that Hodges has avoided, even if he gets stuck in another. Frankly I couldn’t think of anything more useful than saying goodbye to the Vikings as we’ve known them, by whatever means we can, and as quickly as possible.

  3. If he’s phrasing this concept precisely as, “… historians now have to give way to archæologists to fully understand the early medieval period …” then I have to disagree pretty emphatically. (though I want to know where your overlapping “ae” comes from – way cool, and I may read some Anglo-Saxon stuff eventually)

    As I’ve read more archaeological stuff I’ve become convinced that to a large extent it will take archaeology to know what happened but archaeology’s pretty thin on the why; on figuring out contemporary motivations, opinions, etc. I’m sure there will be regular finds where folks will bop themselves on the head in an, “Oh – that’s what this text meant” sort of way. Besides, exact dating of archaeology’s problematic anyway so one of its roles will continue to be confirming/disproving texts. To me texts will continue to have a huge role in the understanding part of the equation. I don’t see how that will change.

    I’m with you on Viking attack motivations. That just doesn’t make a lot of sense, not for the start of it anyway.

    • In the words of the Roman senator Symmachus, up against it when the closure of the temples in Rome was threatened, “there are many roads to the great good we seek”, and we early medievalists are going to need travellers coming in along all of them. And that is, I guess, more where Hodges is himself now than he was in, say, 1989: he opens the Preface of this volume with a Mortimer Wheeler quote which is tremendous: “Indeed it must be confessed that the historian and the archaeologist of the Dark Ages are very like two men clutching each other in mid-air to prevent themselves from falling,” and himself goes on to say that in this volume, “the archaeological evidence is used as a source with which to reassess a familiar textual history” (p. vii). That is quite like what you say yourself here, but this has not always been the Hodges Gospel (see also the shift away from `the Pompeii premise’) and if you opened the introduction to The Anglo-Saxon Achievement or indeed the first few paragraphs of the article version of the actual chapter “Goodbye to the Vikings” you’d see something a lot more like what Viqueen describes above. As I say, I think there is a presentation strategy here as much as a genuine philosophy.

  4. highlyeccentric

    Hrmm. I’m with Curt on the fact that one of archaelogy’s biggest limitations is the -why- factor. But sometimes it must be worth playing the “what would we guess had happened here if we had no written evidence” game, in case the end result makes you re-think the written sources.

    • John Blair here is doing just that with one of the classes for the Norman Conquest option I’m also teaching on, which he’s entitled, “Without the texts would archaeologists know there was a Norman Conquest?”, which as a title alone does exactly that job I think.

      • Referring more to my period, the same holds true for the period between 418 and 507 for the Visigoths in Gaul. There really was nothing archaeologically to distinguish them from Gallo-Romans.

        If I was home I’d be able to reference some quotes for that but I’m at work (don’t tell – besides it’s lunch time).

      • highlyeccentric

        Ooooh, nom nom nom, that sounds like a fun class.

      • That sounds like a very interesting class. Naomi Sykes at Nottingham Uni versity has done some work on this using animal bone assemblages. She found several changes occuring in animal husbandry and hunting, but without the textual evidence it would be difficult to tie this to a specific invasion/conquest. I would recommend her book “The Norman Conquest: a zooarchaeological perspective” if you’re interested.

        • That’s one approach to the question I hadn’t thought of, but it ought to find some traction not least because of the number of French words borrowed into English that are about meat…

          • Of course, but mouton etc are text… ;-) If you’re only using the bones themselves you have introduction of fallow deer, the use of ritualised deer butchery and disposal of specific carcass parts, increase of pig, dramatic decline of game in urban sites (again, hunting restrictions and carcass disposal), etc.

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  6. When did early medieval historians get to feel jolly about what texts can do? We don’t need to deal in hypotheticals to get beyond the explanatory reach of this stuff as easily as falling over our own shoelaces. I give you C8th and C9th Scandinavia. A few Frankish annals, one mendacious hagiographer and some flecks of foam from Adam of Bremen don’t get us all that far. Meanwhile archaeologists get to consider problems that texts don’t touch and historians couldn’t previously envisage. Ok, they’re show-offs who get to show their holiday snaps at conferences. But if I walked out tomorrow and dug up a C9th book in my back yard, believe me, nobody would /ever/ hear the end of it.

  7. I think a really nice compatibility for archaeologists and historians is relegated to the realm of saga studies in Iceland. Jesse Byock has done an excellent job in bridging material evidence with the the texts. Additionally, in that context, having archaeological confirmation of instances within the sagas can lend support to argument in favor of sagas as history. But do not get me wrong bookprosists – the sagas are excellent, contrived narratives. I think archaeology is welcome in the camp of saga studies.

  8. “Without the texts would archaeologists know there was a Norman Conquest?” – why is this question posed just at archaeologists? Why not historians?

    Does the presence of Norman French in England count as “texts”? Does the Bayeaux Tapestry?

    In any event (and here possibly showing my ignorance of all things late Anglo-Saxon and 11th century) – what about the sudden appearance of Motte-and-Bailey castles.

    • In the case of the Bayeux Tapestry, I’d say the answer has to be a definite yes, it ought to count as a “text”: We only know that what it shows is the Norman Conquest of England because there are *inscriptions* on the tapestry that say so. If it wasn’t for these bits of *textual* information saying things like HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST, we wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on.

      Come to think of it, if it wasn’t for the inscriptions there most likely would be a consensus among art historians that the Bayeux Tapestry shows scenes from the Trojan War or from the War of the Maccebees because there is no other evidence for contemporary events being depicted on such a monumental scale in the 11th century.

      So, to rephrase the original question: “Without the texts would (art) historians know the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman Conquest?” No, we wouldn’t. Without the inscriptions we’d simply rule out the option that the tapestry could possibly show something like the Norman Conquest at all!

      • highlyeccentric

        Here’s when you’d need -linguists-! Assuming, idk, a two-hundred year gap in the written record or some such, you could still construct “Frenchmen Were Here” from later English texts.

        • highlyeccentric

          I mean, from the -language- even if everyone had Agreed Not To Speak of Our Conquering Ancestors or something equally bizarre.

          • But the argument has been made for Gaelic in Scotland, for English in England and even, seriously, for Arabic in Spain that it might only be the language moving, not large numbers of its speakers; a shift in cultural expression to that of the neighbours rather than the neighbours themselves moving in. If we had no supporting evidence of a migration or take-over, there’d be no basis for excluding that option in this case either. (I mean, I think those three examples are all mistaken, but we can only tell this from place-names and historiography, and maybe DNA.)

            • highlyeccentric

              OK, so without the Domesday book, say, we couldn’t tell how -many- Normans we got with a Conquest. Hmm. Fair point.

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