Lead Stories

Slaughtering conventional history’s sacred cows

"Slaughtering conventional history’s sacred cows" Continued...

Finally, the Germanic North had already been “Romanized,” even though it lay outside the empire. The historian Alfons Dopsch demonstrated that by the end of the first century the Germanic societies “had acquired most of the attributes of a fully articulated economic civilisation, including the use of coinage and the dependence on trade.” Moreover, when the Goths and Franks and other Germanic peoples took up residence in the empire, or later in what had been parts of the empire, they quickly assimilated. Thus it is that nowhere in modern Europe does anyone speak Frankish or Gothic. Instead, millions speak French, Spanish, and Italian—the Romance languages, which are, of course, merely “low” forms of Latin. This shift occurred very early.

What did decline during the so-called Dark Ages were literary pursuits. Manchester expressed the common theme: “Intellectual life had vanished from Europe.” In fact, little writing on any subject survives. As a result, echoing generations of scholars, the famous nineteenth-century artist Howard Pyle could complain, “Few records remain to us of that dreadful period in our world’s history, and we only know of it through broken and disjointed fragments.” Although some writing from that era may have been lost, it appears that far less was written for several centuries after the fall of Rome than before or since.

Why? In large part because the wealthy leisure class inherent in the parasitical nature of the imperial system had fallen away. Under the empire, the immense wealth drained from the provinces had sustained the idle rich in Rome. When this flow of tribute disappeared, so did the leisure class. There ended up being far fewer persons who did not need to work for their livings and who had the leisure to devote themselves to writing and other “nonproductive” enterprises. It was a few centuries before the reappearance of persons free to produce artistic and literary works.

For generations of scholars, that alone was sufficient to call an era “dark,” even if it was abundant in new technology—which these scholars probably would not have noticed in any event.

The Geography of Disunity

The map of medieval Europe’s independent political units looks remarkably like a map of primitive cultures occupying this same area in 3000 BC. That is because the geography proved inimical to unification. Europe was, in E.L. Jones’s words, “a scatter of regions of high arable potential set in a continent of wastes and forests.” Unlike China or India, it was not one large plain but a multitude of fertile valleys surrounded by mountains and dense forests, each often serving as the core area of an independent state. Only a few sizable plains, such as those surrounding Paris and London, could easily sustain larger political units; the rest of the political units that developed were tiny—statelets is the appropriate term. We lack sufficient information to count the states and statelets of the early post-Roman period, but as late as the fourteenth century there were more than a thousand independent units spread across Europe. Even today there are more than thirty.

Europe’s geographic barriers created not only many political units but cultural and linguistic diversity too, which also impeded efforts at unification. It should be remembered that Rome was able to impose its rule on far less than half of Europe—only the area southwest of the Rhine and the Danube Rivers. Even in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall separated the Roman area from that of the northern tribes. Within the empire, the Mediterranean substituted for a great plain facilitating central control from Rome. That is, Rome was essentially a waterfront empire encircling the great inland sea, and most Roman travel and trade was by boat. It is doubtful that the Romans could have controlled either Spain or the Levant had the legions been required to invade and supply themselves entirely by land. And once Rome fell, both areas splintered back into many small units.

Unlike Rome, however, most of Europe did not depend on the Mediterranean for waterborne tradeways. It had an immense advantage over Asia and Africa because of what Jones called “an abnormally high ratio of navigable routeways to surface area, which was a function of a long indented coastline and many navigable rivers.”

Migrations and Disunity

Our knowledge of the migrations of various groups into and across Europe is a confused mess. Most of the groups left no written accounts of their movements; the Roman reports are often wrong and almost always biased; modern archaeology has challenged a lot of what we thought we knew.

Comments

You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading

    Advertisement