Sunday, March 27, 2011

Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?

Sometime during my primary schooling in the late 1970s or early 1980s I became aware of something called 'The Dark Ages'. The term, as well as the period that stood behind it, always appealed to me greatly since it 1) seemed to involve a lot of things that were sinister and, well, dark and 2) featured a large quantity of swords and bloodshed, things of which I was unduly fond of daydreaming about in that rather warped period of my mental development.

(I suppose I sort of imagined the Dark Ages to be roughly like the covers of Robert E. Howard's 'Conan the Barbarian' books that I was reading avidly at the time.*)

With regard to its name, I think we have to admit that this rather murkily defined era between the Collapse of the Roman Empire to some later time during the Middle Ages when Things Got A Bit Better, had done rather well in terms of what we might call 'general badassness'.

Of course, 'general badassness' is (sadly) not a recognised scholarly criterion.

In any case, as my education continued and I reached university, I discovered that the term 'The Dark Ages' had fallen quite out of fashion based largely on the boringly sensible argument that the period was not, in fact, completely dominated by moody swordsmen and relentless slaughter. More generally, evaluating particular societies or ages as 'better' or 'more civilised' had become not so much the Done Thing.

Thus, in accordance with such principles, out went one allegedly misleading -- if adolescently appealing -- term of art.

As I've focused on the 'modern' period (subject to its own set of sometimes-sensible-sometimes-silly battles around naming and periodisation) it hasn't subsequently really been much of an issue.  

Nonetheless, I was pleased to read Tom Shippey's review of Robin Fleming's Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 in the current (or last, can't recall now) London Review of Books. It's behind the subscriber wall, but just a few short excerpts may give you an idea of why my adolescent heart leapt for joy.

First, Shippey confirms the tendency to reject the old label:

In every TV programme about Anglo-Saxon England someone is always wheeled on to say, in effect: ‘Dark Ages? How can anyone call these the Dark Ages? Just look at the amazing jewellery/magnificent artwork/superb illumination.’

Shippey, partly based on Fleming's book, gives a number of reasons to doubt this more optimistic perspective. Such as the fact that, as Fleming notes, 'Levels of trade in second-century Britain, then firmly under Roman imperial rule, were not reached again for 1500 years.'

Which sounds amazing, but remains a bit of an abstraction. Happily more details are at hand. As Roman society waned, everyday life became a bit grimmer:

Villas were not maintained; principal rooms were converted into barns or corn-dryers; the Oxfordshire kilns and the Wealden ironworks stopped producing; the Roman sewers of Canterbury clogged up and were not fixed; in Cirencester the forum was kept clean but the stone flooring, which had worn paper-thin, was not replaced.

The hobnailed boots which Romano-British peasants had worn – and often been buried in – disappeared. No nails for boots, or for coffins, and so ‘the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground.’ As pottery disappeared, teeth got worse with people chewing grit picked up from open hearths. In the fifth century the inhabitants of Cadbury in Somerset were scavenging cremation urns from 200-year-old cemeteries to cook with.


Bone lesions in the skull and round the eyes indicate childhood anaemia; lines on tooth enamel come from malnutrition or parasite infection; lines of increased bone density show that a child stopped growing for a while; bone plaques on the shin go with leg ulcers, a result of injury or infection. Yet another sign of post-Roman decline was the replacement, in urban centres like York, of brick and tile by thatch and timber, much harder to keep free of fleas and lice and dangerous micro-organisms.

One striking thing about this story -- among many -- is the apparent disappearance of knowledge and technology that was common beforehand. And this, not as the result of a single overwhelming apocalyptic catastrophe but rather what seems in retrospect as a gradual, but determined, slow-motion collapse.

Turning back to the 'How can anyone call this a Dark Age?' question noted earlier, Shippey writes:

It’s true that the jewellery at Sutton Hoo would cost megabucks if you asked a modern jeweller to duplicate it. But less commonly noted is the pottery flask found in the same burial. It was a high-status item for the time, wheel-turned and so probably imported, but the finish is rough and the material porous: three centuries earlier a Roman villa-owner wouldn’t have had it in the house, and even one of his workmen would have thought it unremarkable. Nails, pots, tiles, bronze and copper coins: it’s the absence of useful low-cost items in bulk that make a Dark Age, and their loss is not compensated by the ability to manufacture elite bling. [Emphasis added.]

And, as the review also notes, there was no shortage of blood-letting and invasion. 

Apart from all the various insights I've gained from the review, two things have become clear.

First, I've never thought about hit this way, but I never want to live in a society that has lost the ability to make clay pots and forge iron nails. That, dear reader, is the absolute minimum that I am willing to accept.

Second, I am going to go back to using the term 'Dark Ages'. There are worse ways to relive one's youth.

Now, where did I leave those Conan books....

*I am, of course, aware that Conan's various adventures took place in the Hyborian Age, but as an adolescent I didn't go in so much for attending to such pedantic details.


Marcellina said...

Well, I always figured that the "Dark Ages" referred to the fact that 19th century historians couldn't say much about it, there being at the time a dearth of written record about what was going on in that time after the Romans left and before the monks moved in. Historians were, literally, "in the dark". Certainly it wasn't because of the invasion and bloodiness, since those things were happening all along, before and after.

Nowdays there is much more archaeological evidence of life in that period.

John Carter Wood said...

Yes, there that implication to the term, i.e., the 'we don't know that much about the period' kind of 'darkness'.

On the other hand, I think the term has also tended to refer to the other kind of 'darkness', i.e., the relative intellectual, cultural, economic and technological decline between the Romans and the Renaissance.

Of course, the absence of written sources in itself contains this double meaning: we have few written sources because few people were writing.

I'm re-reading A Canticle for Leibowitz (another relic of my high-school years), which dramatises something similar (though for very different reasons).

Not that that has anything to do with history.

Anyway...thanks for writing.

Taranaich said...

Robert E. Howard wrote a few historical adventures set during the Dark Ages: the Cormac Mac Art and Turlogh Dubh series, as well as a few one-offs like "Spears of Clontarf."

John Carter Wood said...

Thanks for that.

And the already enormous List of Things to Read grows even longer...

Harvey Morrell said...

I think my mom sold your Conan books along with my Conan comic books back in the mid-lat '70's.