Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (Penguin, 2009), £14.99; Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500–700 (Oxford University Press, 2011), £35
When Chris Wickham’s monumental study, Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005), was reviewed by Chris Harman in this journal, readers put off by its size were advised to wait for his new contribution to the Penguin History of Europe. Now, with the appearance of Peter Sarris’s volume for the new Oxford History of Medieval Europe, they will be spoilt for choice. Sarris claims in the introduction to Empires of Faith that he deliberately avoided looking at Wickham’s Inheritance of Rome for fear of “simply paraphrasing it”. He need not have worried. Both books provide more in the way of continuous political narrative than some of the authors’ other publications. Both chart a period which saw the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the 5th century and the rise of Islam in the 7th over a geographical area stretching from Ireland to Iran, and do so in ways that reveal how ordinary people participated in and experienced these extraordinary developments. However, their approaches are different, and not just because of the narrower time frame in Sarris’s book.
Wickham is more explicit about his theoretical framework and methodology than Sarris. Readers of Framing the Early Middle Ages will recognise his characterisation of underlying social and economic changes, his simultaneous control over archaeological, documentary and literary evidence, and his clear but detailed comparisons between different European societies in the early Middle Ages. Here, though, we get an account of what change looked like: there are some pictures in this book. In the middle of The Inheritance of Rome is a chapter on architecture. Descriptions of buildings such as the 8th century Great Mosque in Damascus and a 7th century palace complex in Northumbria provide the basis for comparison between the different ways elites dealt with the Roman legacy.
We also find comparison of village sites, ranging from the stone houses of the olive oil producing peasants of Serjilla in Syria, to the simpler wooden structures in Vorbasse in Denamrk. Wickham shows that peasants in Serjilla, no less than elites in Constantinople, used buildings to score points against neighbours. Wickham as cultural historian even tells us what change tasted like (at least for some: western aristocrats started eating more meat), but he never lets his readers lose sight of underlying structures. At the heart of his comparison between the different villages is the question of if, when and where aristocrats were in control. The fact that they don’t seem to have been in control in Serjilla may explain not only why the peasants were so rich, but also why they were so competitive: “There was more to play for” (p246).
In some ways, Sarris’s book feels more old-fashioned. There is little in the way of theoretical exposition in the introduction or conclusion. The book as a whole is more dominated by accounts of coups and battles, engages slightly less with archaeological evidence, and its claim to be “unashamedly an ‘Oxford’ book” may not endear it to all readers. However, it makes a series of significant contributions to a historical materialist understanding of the period. For example, Sarris argues there was a far greater level of hostility to the Christian church among peasants in societies from Northumbria to Byzantium in the early Middle Ages than historians have tended to suggest. According to Sarris, this reflected anger at attempts to impose cultural change from above, but was also the product of class tensions over the process of production itself, as the church was becoming an increasingly important landowner in its own right. Sarris provides vivid examples. We are told of a 7th century Byzantine saint’s life, which reports how the peasants of one village armed themselves to prevent the bishop’s agent from entering, and an 8th century account of a Frankish “holy man” stabbed in his sleep by his dependent peasants for overworking them. This is a challenge to the influential argument that ascetic “holy men” helped to heal social tensions in the post-Roman world.
Class struggle is at the heart of both of these books, but Sarris and Wickham differ on where the balance of forces lay in this period. Both are agreed that the Roman senatorial aristocracy with estates scattered across the empire-”possibly the richest private landowners of all time”, according to Wickham (p29)-lost most from the fragmentation of the empire in the West, but the question is what happened below that level. In Framing the Early Middle Ages Wickham talked about a “peasant mode of production” operating in certain parts of Europe and the Mediterranean in this period, where peasant producers were not subjected to exploitation by aristocratic neighbours. This terminology is not used in The Inheritance of Rome, but the argument remains: Wickham explicitly claims that, “in the last two millennia, the period 500 to 800 was probably when aristocratic power in the west was least totalising” (p216). Perhaps the most powerful section of Wickham’s book is where he shows how peasant autonomy became increasingly restricted in the following period, from 800 to 1000, although in different ways in the various regions he surveys. He argues the process happened especially dramatically in England, which he sees as having moved from being the post-Roman province with least peasant subjection in 700, to that with the most in 900.
Sarris is not so sure. First of all, he argues that provincial aristocrats below the super-rich were able to cling on to much of their landed possessions and their political power in the new “Romano-Germanic” kingdoms that emerged as the Roman Empire crumbled in the west. The institution of the church provided positions for family members who would previously have been absorbed into the imperial bureaucracy. Sarris is more inclined than Wickham to see the provincial aristocrats as active participants in the collapse of the Roman state, opting to ally themselves with “barbarian” leaders once their tax obligations to Rome seemed to outstrip its usefulness to them in providing stability. He is not only interested in elite protagonism: we read of overtaxed 4th century gold miners in the Balkans who happily point out hidden grain stores to the invading Gothic armies.
On the whole, though, the picture is one of continued aristocratic dominance. The second element of Sarris’s argument, which is clearly influenced by the work of Jairus Banaji, concerns relations at the point of production itself. Sarris, unlike Wickham, argues that direct management of agricultural production by landlords in the early Middle Ages was a legacy of the late Roman period. Sarris and Banaji have developed their arguments about the exploitation of landless agricultural workers (ie wage labourers) on the basis of estate records from Egypt, but they show evidence of it happening in northern Europe too. By weaving it into a complex argument that links monetary developments, changes in the structure of the aristocracy and basic relations of exploitation, Sarris suggests a way towards a multilayered understanding of the underlying dynamic of social change in this period.
It is perhaps surprising that two books with such apparently similar aims should end up presenting such different pictures of this period. Wickham is more upfront: with his arguments and methodology, with his use of his sources and their limitations, and with his comparisons of different types of societies. Sarris moves rapidly between written sources from such different contexts and between different types of explanation, so you feel that Wickham’s criticism of Marxists who “have found their focus slipping as the blurred edges of the vast cultural and political superstructure of the Roman swim into their vision” might apply to Sarris at times.1 Even more bizarre is Sarris’s claim, at the end of an account of the 7th century Islamic conquests which had placed them in the context of social and economic changes in the region, that the “ultimate factor behind Arab success” was “zeal” (p274). But at his best, Sarris hints towards something that seems sometimes to be lacking in Wickham’s account: a sense of change as the product of a society’s internal contradictions. Wickham is so good at presenting accounts of the internal structure of societies quite different from our own that at times we seem to be left with a series of rigorously differentiated static models. The task for Marxist historians should be to find the motors for change.
1: Chris Wickham, 1984, “The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism”, Past and Present, 113.