Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070: Anglo-Saxon Britain Vol 2 (The Penguin History of Britain)

by Robin Fleming

Paperback, 2011



Call number




Penguin (2011), Paperback, 480 pages


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)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Caomhghin
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Steve.Bivans
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
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written, but so rarely is.
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Original publication date


Physical description

480 p.; 5 x 0.91 inches


014014823X / 9780140148237

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