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.
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.