Richard Abels

title.none: Laing, Warriors of the Dark Ages (Richard Abels)

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.014 01.09.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Abels, United States Naval Academy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Laing, Jennifer. Warriors of the Dark Ages. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing, 2000. Pp. xiii, 178. 34.95. ISBN: 0-750-91920-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.14

Laing, Jennifer. Warriors of the Dark Ages. Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing, 2000. Pp. xiii, 178. 34.95. ISBN: 0-750-91920-5.

Reviewed by:

Richard Abels
United States Naval Academy

"This book," Jennifer Laing writes in her introduction, "examines the events which led to the barbarians' reputations for 'mindless' violence or destruction." (v) To do so, Laing examines in separate chapters the violent activities of the Visigoths, Huns, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, and the "non- Celtic barbarians", Saxons, Danes, Frisians, and Angles, who "invaded" Britannia in the wake of the Roman abandonment of that province in the early fifth century. The book concludes with four thematic chapters on "the panoply of war and ostentatious display", warfare and society among the barbarian peoples (which, oddly, covers the "panoply of war", armor and weapons), a cursory and misleading introduction to the historiography of the era, and a schematic survey of primary sources. She does all of this in a mere 147 pages. By the end of those 147 pages, I was still unsure, however, whether Laing sees the "barbarians" (to quote the dusk jacket) as "mindlessly violent" or "only too human, struggling for freedom, and survival".

As the above dichotomy suggests, those seeking a scholarly study of the ethnogenesis and cultures of Migration-era Germanic tribes and peoples will be disappointed. Laing acknowledges but does not engage the central questions wrestled with by the leading scholars of the period: Were the 'barbarians' an alien presence in the Roman empire or part of a wider Roman/Mediterranean world? How and when did these 'barbarian tribes' come into being? To what extent were "Visigoths" and "Ostrogoths", or even "Germania" itself, identifications of self or Roman constructs? Though Laing is familiar with recent research on the Migration-era, she does not essay "a state of the question" synthesis. Rather, she is content to retell stories about selected "barbarian warrior chieftains" (some of whom, like Alaric, might be better characterized as Roman military commanders) and to survey the violent interaction between Romans and various 'barbarian' tribes and peoples from the fourth through sixth centuries. She bases her narratives largely upon the writings of late Roman and early medieval historians, poets, and Christian polemicists. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it is admirable that Laing draws so heavily upon primary sources; the endnotes are studded not only with references to familiar late antique writers, such as Ammianus Macellinus, Jordanes, Zosimus, Procopius, Orosius, and Bede, but to more obscure ones, such as Eunapius, Victor of Vita, Olympiodorus, Hydatius, and Priscus, all of whom are cited in translation. On the other hand, her approach to these problematic and often tendentious texts is overly naive. Ignoring the caveats of Peter Heather and Walter Goffart, whose Narrators of Barbarian History (Princeton, 1988) is conspicuously absent from her bibliography, Laing unreflectively mines the narrative sources for entertaining anecdotes. But even in this she is not fully successful. Laing's preference for breadth over depth wrests her "good stories" and character sketches out of context. As a result, it is far more entertaining to read Gregory of Tours, Bede, or Jordanes than Laing's retellings of their stories. This is not to suggest that Laing simply accepts the historical truth of the stories she relates. She is far too intelligent for that. And one cannot argue with her observation that "whether [these stories] represent exact historical truth or not is of less importance than the fact that the barbarians chose to preserve and relate them in detail". (54; cf. 91) The problem is that Laing too often tells the stories without subjecting them to the necessary critical scrutiny. Her tendency, moreover, is to color them with a romantic patina. The book is dotted with sentences such as, "In the true spirit of all the most celebrated warriors, Sarus 'performed heroic deeds'." (25)

On the whole, Laing is better in dealing with the archaeological evidence. But even here she tends to follow her sources uncritically. In some places she fails to explain the significance of the excavated artefacts. In other places, she reads too much into the archaeological record. After admitting that there is no direct archaeological evidence to substantiate Nennius' story of Hengest's massacre of the 300 "Seniors of Vortigern", she goes on to write (95)

However, archaeology has produced a body of evidence of a much less dramatic nature which at least does not negate the story. The 'senior' Romano-British followers of Vortigern would undoubtedly have lived in villas and fine town houses. After about 450, villa buildings (as opposed to the farming land around) definitely show archaeological signs of no longer sustaining a Roman way of life.

Given that it is doubtful that Hengest and Horsa are even historical figures, the energy expended on trying to substantiate a ninth-century story about treachery in the fifth century seems misplaced. Indeed, Laing is forced to admit that the archaeological record for fifth- and sixth-century Britain fails to support the narrative sources' picture of violent invasion, mass destruction, and the extermination or displacement of the native population.

Perhaps the greatest failing of this book is that is does not deliver on its title. This is not a "military history" except in the most general sense. Battles are recounted, but there is little attention paid to tactics or strategy. We learn virtually nothing about military organization, recruitment, military leadership, or logistics. The "barbarians" of the "Dark Ages", we are told, were warrior peoples led by warrior chieftains who lived in "heroic" societies, but what Laing means by these terms is left unclear. In examining the Huns, she touches upon their manner of waging war, their culture, and what she calls their "lifestyle". There is little discussion of these topics, however, in the chapters on the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, and Danes. Finally in chapter eight, Laing turns to these important matters and when she does, she has little to say about them. Indeed, except for her catalogue of weapons, which is good, Laing's chapter on "Warfare and Society" is far too general and cursory. Her discussion of warrior/heroic societies is both generic and simplistic, relating only tangentially to the Germanic tribes in the fourth and fifth centuries. D.H. Green's pathbreaking work on semantics is missing here and throughout (though one of his articles appears in the bibliography). Laing quite rightly defends the value of heroic poetry as a window on the mentality of the warriors who made up the poet's audiences, and discusses briefly what one can learn about "aspects of Anglo-Saxon warriorship" from Beowulf. (100-1) But she devotes too little attention to this topic. She also begs the question of the dating of these poems. That she transforms Sam Newton's attribution of Beowulf to early eighth-century East Anglia into the "current opinion" on the question (160) suggests either that she has not read widely on the subject or that she is doing a bit of special pleading. Turning to women, Laing has little to say about the evidence for their actual status and societal roles. Instead, she pursues the question whether women were ever warriors. Despite her assertion that "female warriors were certainly not unknown in barbarian society", the lack of specific evidence for them forces her to conclude, "Logic suggests that at least a few women must have taken part in battle, but if so, their deeds went unrecorded." (116)

Especially maddening to the student of military history is the book's failure to place barbarian warfare within a Roman context. Laing is clearly aware that "Roman" generals of late Antiquity were often "barbarians" and that the "Roman" armies of Stilicho and Aetius were nearly indistingishable from the "barbarian" forces of Alaric or Gaiseric. In short, what is missing and needed is discussion of the Roman military in late antiquity and its relationship with the "barbarians" and their leaders. Her brief discussion of these matters on pp. 3-4 is simply insufficient. Laing's book would have been much enriched if she had taken into greater account Thomas Burns' Barbarians within the Gates of Rome (1994). The omission of Wolfgang Liebeschuetz's work for the bibliography is puzzling, as is her decision to end the book before the Gothic Wars.

Although Laing clearly wrote this book with a general audience in mind, it is not a 'quick' or easy 'read'. The book begins well with a chapter on the Visigoths, which is a good, clear narrative of events. After this the chapters become more disjointed and choppy, with Laing's numerous sub-chapters, some consisting of a single paragraph, consistently getting in the way of the narrative flow. Though Laing's prose style is generally lucid, some sentences and passages simply defy comprehension. After observing how difficult it is to establish 'the truth', she declares, "The subject matter of this book is particularly open to speculation--it has been calculated to be (as it were) correct to the first two or three decimal places [?] because there is such a wealth of uncertainty in the material." (vii) "The Vandal fighting force may have been as low as 20,000. It was still too great to withstand any resistance from the inhabitants of Roman Africa." (66) This is less a problem than the book's repetitiveness, perhaps inevitable because of the overlapping narrative histories of the "barbarian" peoples she discusses in separate chapters, and lack of an analytical framework that would give the book cohesion and unity. The latter is exacerbated by the book's odd organization. It would have made far more sense to have moved the three thematic chapters, 7-9, to the beginning of the book. This would have helped the novice reader to understand better the scope and themes of the book before being plunged into a detailed narrative of Visigothic history. As it is, these chapters read more like an introduction than a conclusion.

Inevitably, the book has a number of minor careless errors. Romulus Augustulus, whom Laing accurately characterizes as a "puppet usurper"( x), was deposed in 476, not 475 (83). Rome did not "adopt Christianity as the official state religion in 313". (6) More disturbing is Laing's reversal of the "Germanist" and "Romanist" positions in her chapter on historiography. The error arises from her reliance on a carelessly written passage in K.F. Drew's The Barbarian Invasions (1970). I can understand how Laing made this error, but when writing a survey of this sort one ought to have better command of the basic historiographical controversies than this implies.

The book is nicely illustrated. The photographs are well chosen and intelligently arranged. Laing's captions are informative.