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the material fall of roman britain
21 july 2021
Robin Fleming's Material Fall of Roman Britain is an ambitious synthesis of history and archeology. She attempts to think across two intersecting boundaries that, she says, have cordoned the study of fourth- and fifth-century Britain into what amount to four compartmentalized areas: Roman history, Roman archeology, Anglo-Saxon history, and Anglo-Saxon archeology.
Fleming may overstate the problem when it comes to history vs. archeology. I have only the most casual interest in late antiquity, but even I've reviewed books here (by Greg Woolf, by Bryan Ward-Perkins) that blend consideration of history and archeology pretty thoroughly. Still I imagine that Fleming is largely correct that, in everyday practice, many medievalists limit their horizons to texts, and many archeologists limit themselves to describing a site.
More intriguing is Fleming's exploration of a transitional period that is easily elided by classicists who see their work coming to an end at 400 CE, and medievalists who don't pick up the story till a bit later. The fifth century in particular, in Britain, is not even so much a dark age as a grey area. Such liminal times and places have romantic interest; they generate a fair amount of pathos as we contemplate a world knocked out of kilter, its inhabitants scrambling to reorient themselves.
Fleming quotes the poem "The Ruin", a favorite in Old English classes, a lament for the awesome ruins of the Roman past. But "The Ruin" was written in the tenth century, a whole age after the collapse of Roman infrastructure. At that distance it takes an elegiac, almost proto-Romantic view of the mouldering past. Fleming counters that
the end stages of these buildings would have carried quite different cultural and political meanings for those who had been oppressed because of them. (118)In the fourth century, as Fleming describes it, the Romans maintained large garrisons in Britain, extracted huge amounts of taxes, shipped high-quality goods around at a frantic rate, and provided employment for many highly-skilled specialists. Fourth-century Britain was wealthy, highly stratified, extensively farmed in commodity crops, and linked by myriad connections to a Continental economy and culture that stretched across Europe and into Asia.
The imperial system in Britain began to collapse almost immediately after Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 CE. No troops anymore, no convoys of materiel, no coins, no pots, no glassware. No new building in durable stone, brick, or tile; no new smelting of metal; even the garden crops that characterized the grounds of imperial villas vanished from the island, not to be replanted till the later Middle Ages. On the bright side, though, inequality lessened and Britain became more of an autonomous collective.
The fifth century in Britain was in some ways a prehistoric, (or interhistoric?) and virtually barbarian interlude. Collapse came much earlier to Britain, one of the empire's furthest hinterlands, than to the western Continent, and far earlier and more completely than to Italy or the East.
It's a fascinatingly obscure period that has no true history of its own. As Fleming points out, much of what we used to think we knew about early post-Roman Britain comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for those years, which was written later and recopied later than that. And the Chronicle, notoriously, is "about one migrating war band duking it out with another" (188).
Wars and battles are endlessly intriguing, and I read a lot about them myself. But even during what seem the most "total-war" epochs, everyday life continues. Food is foraged and usually brought to rudimentary markets; people build shelters and, more to the point, keep them in repair; they plant crops, keep animals, and make utensils. Because there effectively is no history of fifth-century Britain, all we know of its enigmatic lifeways comes from one of the mutest archeological records in Europe, and Fleming teases out the implications of that record in thoughtful, readable fashion.
Although, once in a while, I wonder if the tendency to downplay invasions and wars goes slightly too far. At one point, Fleming discusses a trove of "complete or nearly complete Roman-style vessels" deposited around 420 CE in a well in Shadwell, just east of the City of London. As Fleming describes it, the deposit represents "a ritual that was essentially a funeral for a place" (77). The old ways were vanishing, and the people who abandoned the Shadwell house closed it off by burying their table settings. For Fleming, this makes no sense unless it was a highly ceremonial act.
But to me, it sounds like burying stuff so that Angles, Saxons, Jutes, or more local looters wouldn't find it. We will of course never know; we will just spin narratives; but sometimes narratives are about violence, and lots of people in exigent times have hidden precious stuff: from the Colmar Treasure that I saw at the Cloisters just before the pandemic, to valuables hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust, or the Turks during the Armenian Genocide.
Fleming does adduce other ritual well-closures (110ff.) marked by the burial of human and animal corpses, pots, coins, and single (usually left) shoes, so that strengthens her interpretation of the Shadwell trove. Though again, invaders have often thrown human and animal corpses into wells to make sure the locals didn't use them again, and maybe shoes went with them. Maybe sometimes we do find archeological evidence of violence.
Fleming uses an innovative structure, treating post-Roman Britain by categories of stuff rather than by peoples or periods. She is frankly skeptical that we can know what "peoples" we are talking about during this transitional period. Historians and archeologists alike have often called anything after the Romans lost power "Anglo-Saxon." Certainly at some point people did come across the North Sea bringing their language and some of their material culture to what one must, more and more, call England. But in the fifth century, DNA and trace-mineral evidence suggests that people buried here and there across England came from an almost random mix of places: the west of Britain, the east of the Baltic, and a lot of places in between, as if someone had churned the whole continent, and bits of its gene pool had splashed here and there. People remained remarkably mobile even in the darkest of ages, and Britons ended up here and there on the Continent just as continentals ended up across Britain. National identity based on bloodlines is a perpetual, if rhetorically powerful, fiction.
Fleming, Robin. The Material Fall of Roman Britain, 300-525 CE. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. DA 145 .F58