Monthly Archives: March 2010

Historical Revisionism

I just finished Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). There are several good reviews out there such as Paul Stephenson’s (2002) 1 and, in this case, even the ones up on Amazon are pretty good so I’m not going to write one. However this book is one which argues (and argues well – a very detailed examination of the evidence) for a significant revision of the traditional opinion of the Slavs as being an ethnic group during the period covered.

For some reason this brought to mind several recent arguments I’ve either participated in or observed on non-Academic discussion boards. Recently on the usenet group soc.history.medieval there was an extensive discussion of feudalism. One of the participants strenuously and prodigiously argued that the rejection of the “ism” or “system” related to feudal structures proposed by Susan Reynolds and others 2 was nothing more than an unsupported re-writing of history and that the 18th and 19th century historians had it right. Larry Swain participated in this and I admire his tenacity – I just sat back and watched in horrified awe as someone repeatedly rejected well-supported and argued posts discussing charters and other evidence which showed that any argument in favor of some sort of all-encompassing feudal system stands on very shaky ground.

For myself, I was recently involved in a conversation on Library Thing in the Ancient History discussion group. There a couple of posters argued that the end of the Roman Empire could be viewed as nothing other than disastrous – that the level of civilization crashed and burned and if the Empire had survived we might have landed on the Moon centuries ago. Statements in this discussion included, “Civilization was set back a full 1000 years with global implications” and “I guess I remain amazed that it has become so important for historians to refute the fall and call it something else.” In other words, historians changed the way they viewed something simply because they wanted to (there were other errors of fact not relevant to this post). The dirty phrase for this seems to be either “Historical Revisionism” or “Rewriting History.”

If there’s a purpose for this blog (other than self-indulgence) it’s so a reasonably well-read amateur (I hope – how well-read I am must ultimately be judged by others) can post a few things which may be helpful to amateurs just beginning to study the period.

So here’s my first blog suggestion for amateurs: Any time you’re tempted to call a newer work or current understanding an unwarranted rewriting of history, please do two things:

First – Remember that all history is rewriting history. Rewriting history is what historians do – they publish articles and books which, hopefully, increase our understanding of a period and/or issue. This often replaces an older understanding. This shouldn’t be a dirty term (though most historians would likely prefer the use of “reinterpret” rather than “rewrite”).

Second – Ask yourself, related to the issue in question, whether an author’s argument for a new interpretation is based on his or her desire to see things differently, or on the basis of new evidence. Or even, in some cases, by finding new patterns in old evidence. Is the argument based on fact or pure opinion?

It would be naive to claim that nobody has ever argued for a new historical understanding based on nothing more than their desire for things to be viewed differently, however this happens surprisingly little, at least over the past couple of decades. I think you’ll find that most historians are motivated by something more substantial.

1 Stephenson, Paul, (2002). The International Historical Review 24, 629-631.

2 Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals (1994) is more of a culmination of over two decades of debate which seems to have started in earnest with an article by Elizabeth Brown in The American Historical Review in 1974, and there were plenty of rumblings before that.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Curta, Florin, (2001). The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700 (Cambridge, UK) ISBN: 9780521-036153.

Reynolds, Susan, (1994). Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (New York) ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Amateur Tips, Historiography


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Chris Wickham – The Inheritance of Rome or "Where was this Book Ten Years ago?"

Ten years or so ago when I was trying to get up to speed on this Medieval stuff – but after I’d decided that the Early Medieval period was what really fired me up – I did what I thought I should do. I read Ian Wood and Patrick Geary for the Merovingians and tracked down sources such as Gregory and all those Saints who did miraculous things – argued with snakes, grew eyeballs, etc. For the Carolingians I read Riche, McKitterick, Bachrach’s military organization book and the RFA, Einhard, Nithard and Paul Dutton’s collection of sources. 1 My reading was similar for the Anglo-Saxons, Visigoths, Lombards (well, Paul the Deacon is about the only source here), etc.

What was missing was something that would tie it all together. This is that book. First I’ll say that if someone with very little knowledge of Late Antiquity was looking for an overview of the period, I would probably initially point him or her to Innes, not Wickham. I think Innes is a bit more narrative and while he also discusses various issues within the period, it’s organized in more of a straight line chronologically. However for someone with some knowledge of the period and looking for a greater understanding of the evolution of various economic and social structures, I’d aim him or her toward Wickham – though with a caution about what I feel is a huge fault with this book (see below).

Wickham covers some narrative history but the major emphasis is in the evolution of a wide variety of topics over the 600 years covered. These include; peasant autonomy, wealth and landowning; religious influence over the aristocracy and rulers; economic exchange systems and trade networks; continuity and change from the Late Roman to Early Medieval periods in a variety of areas; aristocratic evolution and the development of heritable rulership; among others.

As always, he’s in command of his topic. As he did in Framing, he emphasizes the need to study societies on their own terms without resorting to generalities, either geographically or temporally. This is what has made Framing at this point, my absolute favorite book on medieval history (with competition from McCormick’s Formation of the European Economy). Inheritance doesn’t go into quite that depth of detail, but it still contains a great deal of information.

Now for the bad: “There are no numbered footnotes in the book, so as not to interrupt the text, but the references at the end are organized page by page.” p 12

Aaaargh! I’m a footnote chaser – always have been (I also reserve the aaaargh! for abbreviated endnotes – at least until publishers give me a third arm). Here I have to figure out on my own what may be unique information before deciding to look for the source. If this is something of an introductory overview (I couldn’t find a description of the purpose of the History of Europe Series on Penguin’s website but that’s my sense of it) then to me you can’t depend on the reader knowing what’s general vs specialized knowledge. There’s also no bibliography – unless you can call this page-by-page thing that – which I won’t. For comparison (I just counted) I listed 29 references I’d like to look at after recently finishing Heather. For Wickham, a book of roughly the same size and (I’d say) about the same amount of information, I have 5. I usually blame something like this on the publisher – the above quote has me wondering if I should give the credit to the author in this case.

So this is a very good book and I do recommend it. But with this big caveat – no footnotes and, IMO, no bibliography. In particular, I feel the lack of footnotes reduces its usefulness.

At some point I’ll likely post a real review for this on Amazon and Library Thing. But for right now there’s too much basketball – my alma mater just got to the Sweet Sixteen, which is a miracle worthy of St. Antony himself – and my employment University is about to play to get to the same place (we’re missing our best player but I’ll hold out hope for the next 2 hours or so). Those of you who know what I’m talking about will understand. For those who don’t, don’t worry about it.

1 I’m not going to list all of these references, just the ones I refer to elsewhere.

Innes, Matthew, (2004) An Introduction to Early Medieval Western Europe, 300-900: The Sword, the Plough and the Book (New York) ISBN:978-0-415-21507-7.

McCormick, Michael, (2001) Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 (New York) ISBN: 0-521-66102-1.

Wickham, Chris, (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (New York) ISBN: 978-0-19-921296-5.

Wickham, Chris, (2009) The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (New York) ISBN: 978-0-670-02098-0.


Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Books


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Illusory Bliss

Received my Speculum in the mail yesterday (if you ever want to discover just how removed people who are interested in Medieval History are from the rest of the world, just tell all your non-MH friends, “I got my new speculum in the mail today!” They’ll first look at you very strangely, then wonder why you don’t drive a better car).

Anyway, The first article is an interesting essay by Jonathan P. Conant, “Europe and the African Cult of Saints, circa 350-900: An Essay on Mediterranean Communications.” It’s pretty good – he goes into a lot of detail regarding how African Saints came to be revered on the continent including points of transmission – in particular via Spain and Italy. But I’m more interested in this statement of his, “Despite occasional voices of dissent, historians of late antiquity have tended to imagine that the conversion of Africa to Islam was both rapid and thorough, a vision that necessarily implies that the movement of Christian African cults into the rest of the Mediterranean world was completed over the course of the eighth century at the latest.” (p3) Conant disagrees with this.

My question is whether that’s actually the current state of thought – I know that by having only gotten interested in the period over the past 15 years and generally reading pretty recent publications, I’ve missed a good deal of historical argument over various issues. However my impression of current thought has been that elites living in Muslim lands tended to convert from Christianity fairly quickly as this helped them gain more important administrative posts (and frequently reduced taxation) but the rank-and-file converted much more slowly and Islam did not particularly pressure them to convert. I had certainly thought that Christians continued to be a substantial (though slowly diminishing) part of the N African population for centuries. And yes, I understand that Spain was very different from Africa and we can’t project what happened in the former onto the latter.

Anyway, I’d be curious as to what the current state of thought is and also a reference or two – I’m thinking I might have missed something in my admittedly very cursory reading on the subject.

And I apologize for not following up on my first Heather post yet. I finished the book some time ago but just haven’t had several hours to compose something worthwhile. I’ll get to it though.

Conant, Jonathan P. (2010) “Europe and the African Cult of Saints, circa 350-900: An Essay on Mediterranean Communications.” Speculum 85, 1-46.

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Posted by on March 16, 2010 in Religion


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