What was Britain like in the Dark Ages? Who walked across the landscape we now inhabit? Do objects such as those found in the Staffordshire hoard reveal a far more sophisticated, wealthy and militarized society than we had previously imagined? Britain After Romestitches 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 collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the arrival of the Normans nearly seven centuries later. Robin Fleming depicts a country whose towns were abandoned, where Christianity had disappeared, and where immigrants and invaders came to settle. Yet it is also the world in which many of today's villages were founded, and Britain's vernacular languages and political arrangements were forged. Britain after Romeoffers tantalizing glimpses of the surprising and resilient peoples who remade Britain in the centuries after Rome's collapse. It allows its readers to see Britain's history in a quite new light. 'An excellent, gripping and persuasive read . . . offers an entirely new insight into the past' British Archaeology' A sweeping work of impressive scope' Archaeology Review
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.