Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages

I am working my way through this magnum opus by the respected British historian Chris Wickham (at least I respect him, and the British Academy and Oxford University Press, too).

It concerns the social, political, and economic transformations of the Roman world over a fascinating but difficult-to-document period of history, 400-800. It's based on years effort by Wickham to come to grips with often sparse primary sources in over half-a-dozen ancient languages and vast secondary commentary and theorizing in many more modern tongues.

I am of at least two minds about this book. It is really big and correspondingly expensive -- $175 US. This will put it beyond the reach of many, many university libraries. It seems to me that Oxford University Press has chosen to reach out to a very narrow audience indeed, by chosing a smaller press run and a higher price. They are saying that out of 6 billion + human beings on the planet, 6 billion + will not have access to this book. The people who will have access are just a rounding error. And if they made that choice, then to some degree Wickham and the British Academy which funded his project made the same choice.

They all might say, well, if the project was worth doing, it was going to be at least as big (800 + pages of exposition, not including bibliography) and how many people do you expect to read it anyway? And there's definitely something to that argument. I'm a professional historian who has worked in this period (but no longer) and is still really interested in it and I have barely enough time to look at it. But the self-fulfilling prophecy part of this argument still bothers me. I'd be a lot happier if I knew that this material would be available in some form to the 6 billion +, and not just to those of us who are part of the rounding error. A shorter summary by Wickham later? Of 350 pages? Or maybe Google Scholar will have a role in disseminating the book's conclusions?

If this book is as good as it seems, it shouldn't just be assigned to a few grad students at high-level research universities.

And there's where my "second mind" about this book comes in. I am eating it up. Wickham has set out to make big generalizations and then nuance them. No doubt he has made errors that specialists will pillory him for, but scholarship on the really big questions only progresses when people really stick their necks out. If they come up with something interesting enough, their faulty generalizations will inspire debate and research for a century to come.

Maybe Wickham will play that role.

Here's something from the book that illustrates what I mean. Wickham argues -- if I understand him right -- that over the 400 year period techniques of aristocratic exploitation of land and cultivators didn't change that much and that many of the same families must have been involved the whole time. Yet aristocrats did not retain a sense of historical continuity over that period. Here's what Wickham says on p. 168:

By 800 there is not a single person anywhere in the former empire, with the sole exceptions of the Mamikonean and Bagratuni families in Armenia, whose male-line ancestors in 400 are securely known. And yet, in 800 a high proportioni of the city-level aristocratic families were assuredly still around, speaking Latin, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Berber, German, Welsh.

Don't you feel you know a little more, just reading that?

Two further points: the big flaw in this book is that the Balkans are not discussed. Wickham says he just could not handle the additional languages he'd need to read the relevant scholarship. A real practical hurdle, I admit. But in the 3rd and 4th centuries the Balkans were a really central part of the Roman Empire and is it really justifiable to leave that region out? Could he perhaps have got a collaborator for that section? Certainly there ought to be a response from some daring Balkan historian that relates to Wickham's admittedly incomplete synthesis.

And for those of you wondering how I got into the rounding error, no, I did not spend my own money. Nor did I use the university's money, given all the other books we need for our direct teaching mission. A generous donor, an amateur of history who shall remain anonymous here, bought it and after reading it sent it along to me. I hope that donor -- a person I happen to know has an instinct for picking the good books -- got as big a kick out of it as I am.

Little detail: the photo used for the cover is of a site called Serjilla in Syria. Clicking on it twice should give you a bigger version.

Update: It occurs to me that my reaction to Wickham's quote makes me look pretty gosh-wow about the use of that Armenian evidence to qualify his broad generalization. Perhaps so. But one reason I am impressed is that after 160 pages of this book, I'm convinced that Wickham was pretty careful in checking his facts right across the old empire. I like a book that takes all the regions of the post-Roman world seriously. Note: though he left the Balkans out, Wickham intends to discuss both Ireland and Denmark where possible and relevant.


  1. Thanks Steve - I picked up on your post to Mediev-L. I've also linked to your comments on If you or your students want to read my review of Heather's 'Fall of Rome' and my ongoing citing of Gibbon's, they can find them there.


  2. Please, please, PLEASE don't put this book on any of your reading lists. Though I'm sure it's fascinating, it could single-handedly bankrupt all of us. :)

  3. Figuring out what books to assign and whether they are worth the price the student will pay is always tough, esp. since books tend to be more expensive in Canada. My rule is that if I make them buy it, it has to be used in an assignment.

    Of course Framing the EMA doesn't qualify. But I'd like to feel I could order it for the library for an advanced student, perhaps in an individual study project, to use.
    At around $200 CDN this is not going to happen, unless I pass on the donated copy. We could buy four other more generally useful books for that price -- in some areas, more than four.

  4. Since my last comment, I've been to a class on modern british novels, where we are studying a book by Thomas Mo that centres on the Chinese Triad Societies - as a joke, the professor asked the university's library to buy it. They weren't amused. Remember, it's in pounds.

  5. Just saw the TITLE of this book in an old issue of the London Review (I read slow okay!) and was hooked - not to the $175 mark, but to Google it and maybe suggest to NYPL that they ask around and borrow me a copy. The Med in those particular centuries should be madly busy, as the unification of the sea that was Augustus' proudest achievement finally broke down for good.

    But I would like to ask Wickham (or read the book to find out) how he can be sure NO families in 800 knew much of their ancestors in 400? None mention it, okay - but how many talked to whoever he interviewed? I can well believe no one but a couple of Armenians boasted of a link, but how do we know there were none? The Franks certainly intermarried with Gallo-Roman aristocrats - unlike the Goths and Lombards, they were Catholic and acceptable spouses. But is it the change of name that gives CW his clue? Who were the senatorial families in Constantinople in 800? Did NONE of them link to Old Rome?

    On the Balkans in this period: you know, c. 400-700, the whole peninsula was occupied by invading Slavs, all the cities were destroyed, all the landowners driven out and replaced; the great monasteries had not been founded yet; what records would have survived? I'll bet there's lots of speculation in Bulgarian and Serb and Croat and modern Greek, but very very little written primary source material.

    P.S. Very glad to read your review and very eager to get a peek at the book. Ef karisto poli!

    Jean Coeur de Lapin