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

21 Mar

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

  1. Mauro

    March 19, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Seen that your really interested in the early middle ages, I thought that you would enjoy this link ( to a Yale course on the early middle ages. It is part of Yale’s opencourseware, so you have access to video and audio files of the lectures, as well as the reading list. Well, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. BTW, Paul Freedman, the lecturer, uses Wickham, that’s is how I came to your page, by reading commentaries on Wickham’s book The Inheritance of Rome.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    March 19, 2013 at 2:55 pm


    Thanks for the link. I’ll have to check it out. Yale must be ahead of the game in this. Donald Kagan’s had a classical history course available the same way for several years.


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