48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise overview of the archeological evidence for the revisionist view of Rome's fall
As another reviewer mentioned, Peter Wells doesn't break much new ground here in arguing that the end of the Roman Empire as a political entity in Western Europe was simply part of a gradual transformation of European society rather than a cataclysmic event. Nevertheless, "Barbarians to Angels" is more than simply a rehash of ideas and arguments previously put forth...
Published on December 4, 2008 by Yankee Dave
50 of 60 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Dark Ages Revisited
Peter Wells's new book is intriguing but not earth shattering. Henri Pirenne (he died in 1935) pointed out that cities in the Roman Empire did not collapse in the 4th century but instead survived until Moslems seized Spain and the major islands and turned the Mediterranean into an "Islamic Lake." Then there were sharp declines in the size of Mediterranean cities as...
Published on August 7, 2008 by Edmund Thomas
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Concise overview of the archeological evidence for the revisionist view of Rome's fall,
As another reviewer mentioned, Peter Wells doesn't break much new ground here in arguing that the end of the Roman Empire as a political entity in Western Europe was simply part of a gradual transformation of European society rather than a cataclysmic event. Nevertheless, "Barbarians to Angels" is more than simply a rehash of ideas and arguments previously put forth. Wells provides a concise overview of the archeological research that supports the revisionist view that most people living at the time wouldn't have been aware of any particular "decline" or "fall" of the structures governing society.
That said, I wasn't completely persuaded by Wells's arguments. He does succeed in showing that there was substantial economic and intellectual activity going on during the so-called "Dark Ages," but he doesn't make much of an attempt to quantify that activity, or to compare the level or nature of that activity with what was occurring during Roman times. I don't think that even the most traditionalist scholars have argued that European "civilization" came to a screeching halt in 476 A.D., so it's hardly a revelation to discover that manufacturing and trade continued after that date; that doesn't, however, answer the question of whether, or in what ways, it declined (for lack of a better term) in the absence of Roman authority. It seems indisputable, for example, that the road network established by the Romans fell into disrepair after the Empire's demise, which must have made trade at least somewhat more difficult.
Wells also tends to extrapolate, perhaps overly so, from relatively few or narrow archeological sources. More than once, for example, he discusses the finds in a particular post-Roman gravesite somewhere in Europe, which often include jewelry and other objects demonstrating a high level of craftsmanship, to show that artisanship and trade survived during this period. The question remains, however, to what extent different classes of society were able to take advantage of such activity. Virtually all societies have their elite classes, and it seems reasonable to think that the gravesite of an elite member of society might be better preserved (due to the greater care used in its preparation) and more likely to attract a modern-day digger's attention (due to the presence of gold and other objects of value) than that of a commoner. To place too much emphasis on such sites, then, is not entirely consonant with Wells's "bottom up" approach to history, which focuses on the lives of average people rather than the actions of the "great men" of the time.
In fairness, I should point out that Wells does not limit himself to finds at gravesites; he also discusses, for example, several manufacturing sites to show that pottery (which serves as a useful barometer of overall manufacturing and trade because of its relative permanence in the soil and its widespread geographical and societal distribution) and other consumer goods were being turned out in substantial quantities during the period in question. Again, though, he does not make much of an attempt to compare either the overall level of such manufacturing, or the technical sophistication of the goods being produced, with that of Roman times. In that regard, his book compares unfavorably with Bryan Ward-Perkins's "The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization," in which Ward-Perkins argues (persuasively, in my admittedly non-specialist view) that the archeological evidence shows a marked decline in the extent to which the average person was able to obtain well-made pottery for everyday use after the Empire fell.
Despite those flaws, I found "Barbarians to Angels" rewarding. Wells may overstate his case at times, but the book still serves as a useful corrective to the notion that when Rome fell, it dragged all of European society down with it. Wells does demonstrate, convincingly, that the Dark Ages were much more than the violence-ridden period of ignorance and cultural bleakness that still dominates the popular imagination, and that this was, in many ways, a time of dynamic change that is worthy of study in its own right, rather than simply as an unfortunate gap between Roman imperial civilization and the Carolingian renaissance.
At 202 pages of text, the book is a quick read, particularly since the pages themselves are on the small side and there are a fair number of black-and-white photographs throughout. Wells has a straightforward writing style, although he tends to describe particular archeological artifacts in minute, if not excrutiating detail, some of which I frankly skimmed over. I should also note that in addition to his analysis of economic activity during the Dark Ages, Wells provides concise discussions of urban life, as well as of technological, religious, intellectual and cultural activity during this period, which are marked by the same strengths and flaws as his analyses of manufacturing and trade.
In short, this is a worthwhile read if you're looking for a brief exposition of the revisionist, "transformational" view of the Roman Empire's disintegration and its aftermath, with particular emphasis on the archeological evidence. Although stylistically accessible to the general reader, it will probably most appeal to, and would best be read by, those with at least a general familiarity with the subject matter. If you haven't done so, I would also highly recommend Ward-Perkins' book as a companion piece and counterweight to Wells's arguments; together, they provide a fascinating insight into the process by which historians examine and interpret the evidence, often with markedly different results.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barbarians to Angels,
There are so many lengthy difficult books about the Early Middle Ages, written for and by specialists, what a delight to find a short and easy to read summary of the latest scholarship of this rapidly changing multi-disciplinary field, written for a general audience by a medieval scholar with an up to date and useful bibliography.
The term "Dark Ages" has a long and complicated history ever since its invention by Italian Humanists in the 14th and 15th centuries. Modern medieval historians try to avoid the term Dark Ages with its pejorative implications. However some will still justify its use because the period was "dark to us", because of the lack of written record. However even this is no longer the case, a wealth of archaeological information has surfaced to enlighten the period. The old prejudices of a violent, backwards and stagnant time are falling away. Was it different from Rome? Yes, but to apply a value judgment of a "Dark Age" is inappropriate, this powerful metaphor has sadly shaped many peoples vision of the period.
Peter Wells examines some of the enduring myths and shows, through new archaeological findings, rather than a sudden break with the past, a continuity of history. For example there is a myth that urban centers declined or were abandoned, Wells shows substantial evidence this was not the case, using a case example of London. There is a myth of continuous violence and warfare, however Wells suggests this could not have been the case because of freedom of movement and trade that was occurring. There is a myth that technology halted or went backwards, when in fact it was a period of innovation, including the deep plow, horse harness and 3-field system which created a surplus in food, population and specialization. There is a myth that Roman roads deteriorated, which is true, but the original Roman roads were built on ancient roadways and were mainly only meant for military purposes anyway. Artwork flourished in this period finding new and original expressions.
Barbarians to Angels is a quick read for a general audience that summarizes a lot of recent and difficult scholarship. For more specialized works, to understand how we know what we know, the "proof", there is an excellent Bibliography.
39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Look at the Dark Ages,
Based on recent archaeological evidence, the author of this book proposes that the Dark Ages, i.e., the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, were not really as barbaric and totally chaotic as they were previously thought to be. He describes various sites throughout Europe where recent archaeological evidence suggests that life continued and even prospered and that living conditions were not at all as bad as previously thought. Although the writing style is clear, authoritative, accessible and indeed quite scholarly, the book contains several passages that tend to be rather dry even for an interested general reader, e.g., many detailed lists and descriptions of various artifacts found in ancient graves. Perhaps more photographs, including colored ones, of these items could have helped reduce the quantity of such descriptions. Nevertheless, this book can be thoroughly enjoyed by readers who are seriously interested in this topic. It could also serve as a valuable auxiliary textbook for some archaeology courses.
50 of 60 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Dark Ages Revisited,
Peter Wells's new book is intriguing but not earth shattering. Henri Pirenne (he died in 1935) pointed out that cities in the Roman Empire did not collapse in the 4th century but instead survived until Moslems seized Spain and the major islands and turned the Mediterranean into an "Islamic Lake." Then there were sharp declines in the size of Mediterranean cities as widespread trade between Byzantium and the Near East stopped flowing in that direction. And Rome, an ancient of a million people declined to something like 30,000 by 552, due to barbarian attacks, and hovered around that figure into the 12th century.
Some trade continued, to be sure, and the Varangian Trade Route via Russia to the Baltic Sea soon replaced the southern trade route for a couple centuries. Venice, as Frederic Lane demonstrated, was an exception to this general rule.
There were masterpieces such as the Book of Kells produced in this period BUT anyone bothering to look at the display of British coins in the British Museum is aware that craftsmanship went to "hell" soon after the Romans left Britain and did not rise to the ancient level for many centuries.
Finally, and most importantly, Wells argues that there is no material evidence of a mass migration into western Europe and the British Isles so therefore we should assume that there were only smaller scale movements so the few contemporary chroniclers were incorrect in picturing mass hordes. There also is no evidence of people abandoning their old homes as they made their way towards new ones. I'm much more inclined to believe the chroniclers. If, as many historians have argued, overcrowding was a large factor in pushing people out of their old homes, there would be little or no evidence of "abandonment."
Looking only at England, the "Roman" elite seem to have disappeared while the Celtic masses suddenly switched to a Teutonic tongue they had never used before. Linguistics definitely favors a mass influx of Germanic peoples who pushed the original Celts inhabitants into Wales and Cornwall, and in the process, made England the only part of the western Roman Empire where the people stopped having a Romance language.
Wells's BARBARIANS TO ANGELS is enjoyable to read and stimulated my mind but, to me, his case is not proven.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Weak and unconvincing,
This review is from: Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (Hardcover)
To start off, I think that Well's thesis is correct. Much of the cultural baggage attached to the term "Dark Ages" is Enlightenment Romanophilism and that picture deserves thorough revision (which has been done in the academic sphere with major works like Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800). Unfortunately, Wells' attempt to bring such research the popular sphere falls rather flat due to poor argumentation and highly questionable use of evidence. Although the book promises in the preface to demonstrate that the Dark Ages "were a time of brilliant cultural activity" Wells fails to do this. Instead, regardless of the chapter heading, he turns time and time again to archaeological finds from the Dark Ages. This in itself is not a problem, as the archaeological record is an invaluable part our understanding of the history of this period. The problem lies with the fact that it is all the Wells uses. Again and again he goes off describing the features of this belt buckle or that fibula. Although many of the ceramics and pieces of metalwork from the early Middle Ages are quite impressive, Wells' fails to put them into any sort of wider context, which leads into the next problem. A significant part of this book deals with sites on the fringes or beyond the former borders of the Roman Empire. I expected this book to be a popular response to Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization but Wells rarely engages with sites inside the former Western Roman Empire and instead prefers to discuss fancy grave goods from sites beyond the borders. I do not think his information is incorrect. For example, his discussion of the continuity of pagan practices in supposed Christian burials is quite good. However, it frequently lacks context, such as in the section in which he talks about the average height of men and women from (guess where?!) grave finds. His numbers come from two sites, and he never addresses the question of the rest of finds in the rest of Europe. This is a problem that is repeated throughout the book. Again and again each chapter continued to discuss grave goods, while Wells never really discussed other important archaeological finds, like relative economic complexity of sites during the Roman and post-Roman period. This is why this book falls flat. Wells consistently demonstrates that people in the Dark Ages were capable of creating sophisticated goods and moving them widely, but why, how, and how this related to the earlier Roman period is not explained at all. The argumentation of this book is weak and although it is a simple read, you would be much better off with something by Wickham or Ward-Perkins.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars an interesting effort, but too thin, often unclear, and unconvincing,
This is a revisionist exercise that attempts to de-bunk the visions of post-Roman collapse and chaos that were disseminated by distant contemporary Christian authors. What the author adds that is new, at least to me, is to marshall archaeological evidence to prove that the dark ages do not represent a radical discontinuity, but rather evolved naturally on a different far more positive course that we typically assume. So far as it goes, Wells does get the reader to re-think things, but in the end there is not enough evidence to support his claims.
Wells attacks the question from a number of angles. First, he examines the leaders that stepped into the vacuum left by the withdrawal of Roman protection from its former territories in the wake of the empire's implosion. It was here, in the fourth chapter, that I became uneasy and confused about the direction the author wanted to take. A large part of the chapter is an imagined reconstruction of the transfer of power at Childeric's burial to his son, Clovis, who eventually converted to Christianity and supposedly established the first kingdom of France (in spite of being a German Frank). The problem for me was that I could not see where Wells was going with this long passage, however much it was based on a scrupulous interpretation of the archaeological evidence. So far as I can tell, he wanted to establish that 1) authority continued to exist in many locations where similar burials were done and 2) reference to Roman power, often in a form resembling clientage, remained strong. This is fine, but I continue to wonder how significant this finding is and what it proves.
Second, Wells embarks on a discussion of what happened to Roman cities, from a few examples, esp. Londinium (i.e. London). Once again, I can accept that the new powers took over some Roman traditions of architecture and urban organization, adapting them to their own needs (e.g. demolishing certain stone structures for building materials, ending monumental undertakings for a time, etc.). However, it is unclear that this took place in more than a handful of locales, when compared to the gigantic expanse that enjoyed relative peace and easy commerce with the protection of laws for hundreds of years. It is a question of both scale and quality, which cannot be definitely addressed with the available evidence. He also argues that new cities opened up in the North, all of which were on a more impressive scale than assumed, but again, this fails to convince.
Third, and most interesting to me, he looks at evidence for what occurred in the countryside, in particular agricultural technologies and practices. In particular, this period benefitted from the development of the horse collar, which enabled farmers greater plowing power than oxen or horses with harnesses designed for oxen that choked them. In addition, they began to use a metal plow that turned the soil over rather than merely cut furrows, which along with crop rotation replenished chemical nutrients and greatly enhanced productivity. As proof that people were eating very well, he cites height statistics. This was the most convincing argument for me by far that the vitality of the dark ages is under-valued.
Fourth, Wells looks at trade patterns. The most he can say here, in my view, is that it continued, only with distinct craft traditions. This is fine, but it is not the same as proving that trade equalled or surpassed that of the Roman period. There just isn't enough evidence to prove that, in spite of a Bhuddah statue that was found in the Sweden of 6C BCE. Related to this is a rather tedious description of the crafts that were under development; this is interesting, particularly as I had just visited one site he describes, Sutton Hill, as he added context to what we saw. There were common design patterns that were incorporated into artifacts. But again, I do not see that trade networks and new crafts prove that overall the dark ages overall were a time of flourishing. ALso, examples of local coinage did not convince me that most areas had in fact degenerated into barter economies.
Finally, Wells discusses the spread of Christianity alongside innumerable survivals of pagan practices. Again, this is fun and interesting, but it did not prove anything much that would advance his thesis. They did preserve literacy and stimulated many new avenues of intellectual activity, but this is already well known.
My biggest problem with the book's style is that Wells goes into many catalogue-like descriptions of artifacts and other details, but does not provide clear enough direction for what it means. I got to the end of many chapters and felt, "so what" or asked "what is he getting at?" As such, the book lacked the density I needed to accept his arguments. I did learn a bit about dark age archaeology and the section on agriculture was very interesting, but overall I felt unsatisfied.
Recommended for students of archaeology and the interested general reader.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting revelations based on new evidence,
Been to Europe lately? Every village seems to have an archaeological dig, and what this new information reveals is most interesting.
Wells may be making too strong a case to talk of us now believing the barbarians have been revealed as angels, but certainly the Dark ages have been shown to much less dark than thought.
What happened to the formerly Roman cities? "There is no archaeological evidence for destruction or even rapid abandonment of" (p 77) many once flourishing cities. Although Roman-style architecture ended, for the most part, habitation remained.
Wells argues that in Britain a return to the original styles of building may be thought of as cultural choice rather than decline. He points to "rapidly accumulating signs of high status and great wealth in early Medieval London" (p 119).
Even though there is evidence of some sorts of decline, the populations still had access to knowledge unknown before Rome, such as the use of iron. Lovely jewelry gives evidence of a taste for luxury and beauty.
The book will make you reconsider your view of the Dark Ages.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Adequate Summary of the "Revisionist" View of the Dark Ages,
Barbarians to Angels is what you might call a summary of the so-called "Revisionist" view of the Dark Ages, specifically, that the Dark Ages weren't that dark, and that the period between of 400 AD to 800 AD was actually a time of urban growth and creative vitality. At this point, I'm not sure that there are any scholars out there actively defending the "old" view- which is exemplified by Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and two hundred years of subsequent scholarship by those inspired by Gibbons.
To Gibbons and his followers, the Barbarian invasions of Europe between 300 AD and 600 AD were the functional equivalent of someone snuffing out a candle- with Europe only pulling itself together after the turn of the millennium.
So what changed? Basically, in the last fifty years, anthropologists, historians and archeologists have applied investigatory techniques developed for "primitive" civilizations and applied them to settlements of Northern and Central Europeans during this period.
What they discovered is that from a trade/economic/urban growth perspective, Northern Europe did quite well during the dark ages, with multiple northern cities/trading centers emerging out of nothingness during this period.
This new knowledge has been combined with information that was traditionally ignored about the Roman Empire, specifically that it wasn't such a great place if you were poor, a slave, or a poor slave. The Roman Empire was a hugely unequal place, and if you were at the bottom, it was probably tough to distinguish the pre vs. post barbarian invasion environment.
As someone who likes to focus on continuity instead of difference, I'm sympathetic to the argument, but Barbarians to Angels is a very brief summary of a complex, multi-strand argument: It's useful for people trying to grasp the idea of the revised Dark Ages, but will leave intermediate and advanced readers feeling like there is no new information to be found in this volume.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!,
I've always pined for the Dark Ages of Northern Europe, and never been able to justify it - let's face it, the "barbarian" tribes have been brought into thorough disrepute by the dour Roman commentators of the late Empire. What a pleasure, then, to discover a book that dismantles those jaded opinions with wit and clarity.
Peter Wells is a prominent archaeologist, and in this book he presents - in a fascinating and very readable way - an argument that the Dark Age German and Celtic groups were actually cosmopolitan, creative, innovative, and worldly. The basis of his argument: rather than relying on Roman opinion he relies on the actual archaeological evidence left behind by the supposed barbarians.
The archaeological evidence - settlement ruins, burial finds, sacrificial finds, and so forth, reveals peoples who were anything but backward. They created exquisite new art forms, opened up expansive trade networks (forever shattering the notion that the old Heathens were somehow hermetically sealed from other cultures), and lived largely peaceful lives despite living in a time of great (but, argues Wells, much more gradual than previously understood) change.
Wells' writing is crisp and bracing and his obvious enthusiasm for the minutiae of archaeological finds is infectious. This book is a powerful antithesis to the dry excesses of so many history texts.
Wells also destroys the myth that premodern Europeans had terrible nutrition and dental health. Actual examination of the bodies from this period show that they were mostly well fed and had good teeth - which just shows the triumphalism of modern medical and dental science really is so much self-justificatory grandstanding.
Indeed, the only real flaw in this book is that Wells seems to gently argue that the Dark Ages peoples should be celebrated as a stepping stone to Charlemagne and modernity - as opposed to simple appreciating their achievements on their own terms.
He also fails to reflect on the extent of the violence and cruelty that Charlemagne utilised to consolidate his Christian powerbase - Wells is right to point out that the conversion was less sudden and simple than some folk would like to think, but I think he leans too far the other way in the process. On the other hand, he does make the important point that many pagan traditions lived on quite happily after the conversion.
On the whole, and despite my ultimately very minimal criticisms, it is deeply refreshing to read such a thorough, detailed, and thoughtful book about European history. Wells grasps both the importance of details and the importance of the big picture, and on the whole this book is a must-read for anyone who has an interest in Northern European history.
There are many brilliant quotes throughout the book but I think I might end on this very thought provoking question that Wells poses on page 201:
"[W]hich people drive change? Is change brought about largely through the actions of leaders, or by the majority of people? To read traditional text-based history of the first millennium, we could think that the persons named in the texts were the decisive factors - emperors such as Constantine and Julian, Germanic leaders such as Alaric and Clovis, other barbarian rulers such as Attila. These individuals and their actions were the subjects of the writers' attention; hence they form the focus of the textual accounts. But battles were won by armies, not by generals. Surplus production by farms in villages all over Europe enables the thriving trade in amber and glass beads, grindstones, fine pottery and glassware, and other desirable goods. Growth in manufacturing at centres such has Helgö and Southampton, and at inland settlements such as Mayen, fuelled the desire for manufactured goods and trade items throughout Europe. Expansion of specialised industries, such as that in pottery in the middle Rhineland, had no obvious elite component as a driving force. So which group played the greater role in causing the changes during these centuries - the elites or the majority of the people?"
You'll have to buy the book if you hope to be able to venture an informed answer to this question...
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars BARBARIANS TO ANGELS: THE DARK AGES RECONSIDERED BY PETER S. WELLS,
This review is from: Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered (Kindle Edition)
Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called "Dark Ages" really weren't that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximately 410 to the takeover of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 is actually not correct.
Wells begins with Late Antiquity and the fall of the Roman Empire explaining how this all came about and what state Europe was left in once Rome was gone. But instead of painting the invading tribes as desecrating the relics of the once great empire, he creates a whole new canvas in revealing that the migration of foreign tribes and peoples in the former Roman Empire was a gradual one that took place while the Empire was still thriving. There was not necessarily a "hostile takeover," but a replacing of government with people who were not indigenous to the region and had lived there for some time.
Wells creates the same setting for the mass migrations of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Western Europe to Britain as not an event that occurred within a hundred years, but something that took place over centuries. The author attempts to prove all these findings which are quite contrary to common thought on the subject with photos and evidence of the regions apparently revealing that the migrating people had been there for a lot longer than thought, or in the case of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, that the populations were never that large to begin with.
The other part to Barbarians to Angels, according to Wells, is that the "Dark Ages" were not a return to an ignorant and primitive way of life for many, with the power lying in the hands of the church, but a time of life similar to that experienced during the Roman Empire, with extensive trading throughout the continent of Europe. With this trading there would've been an exchange of cultural knowledge and education leading to better developed societies.
Peter Wells does an impressive job in revealing perhaps a different world and way of life for the people of the Early Middle Ages. His failing lies in the amount of evidence presented, which may be partially due to the limitations in the length of the book, but may also lie with there simply not being enough evidence to help prove his point. As a medieval historian, I am not thoroughly convinced with the case he presents in Barbarians to Angels, however there are some very interesting ideas, with evidence that cannot be ignored. The most sobering and perhaps convincing item is that of a bronze figure of Buddha that was crafted in India northern in the sixth century and was recovered in Helgö, Sweden, which leaves one at least contemplating the ideas expressed in Barbarians to Angels.
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Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells (Hardcover - July 17, 2008)
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