Published as part of the Cambridge Medieval Textbooks, the authors of The Carolingian World position their work as a one-volume introduction to and overview of the period, and the Carolingian age is more than overripe for such a volume. The standard introductions, Rosamond McKitterick's The Frankish Kingdoms Under the Carolingians and Pierre Riché's The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe are both now thirty years old, and despite the persistent strengths of both these books the field has moved on in the intervening years, often strikingly so.  For its intended audience of advanced undergraduates, beginning graduate students, and non-specialists, The Carolingian World is justifiably destined to be the new standard point of departure.
After an initial chapter setting out the scope of the book and a consideration of the different types of sources available to historians of the period, the authors organize their material by interspersing thematic chapters with chapters devoted to political narrative. The three political chapters (Chapters 2, 4, and 8) take readers from the origins of the dynasty in the later seventh century through to 888 when the family's dynastic monopoly over kingship in its core territories came to an end. The authors, taking their cue from Regino of Prüm (427), defend 888 as an appropriate place to end even if there is still a century of Carolingian royal history still to come. The great strength of these political chapters is that, as in the best Carolingian scholarship, the authors keep the sources ever on full display, and never sacrifice careful, canny reflection on the difficulties of the source base in preference for a tidied up narrative of events. This is a solid pedagogical model for new students of the period, and smart students of all levels will find their way back to the sources and best treatments of the issues, and thus to first rate essay topics, with ease from the notes.
Chapter 3 ("Belief and Culture"), the first of the thematic chapters, offers an overview of the religiosity of the empire. Emphases fall here on Christianization and what historians mean by this term, and on early medieval ideas of sin and the mechanisms through which sin might be mitigated. The strength of these choices in topics lies in how thoroughly the authors show Christian belief embedded into those structures of empire considered in the political chapters. Their discussion of Christianization thus reflects on the discussions elsewhere in the volume of the theory and practice of kingship, just as their presentation of the early medieval preoccupation with the danger of sin leads naturally into a lucid discussion of the practices of aristocratic patronage of and gifts to monasteries. All in all, this chapter advances the important point, so often forgotten or resisted by students, that the Carolingian kingdom, like all early medieval kingdoms, was a "symbiosis of the secular and ecclesiastical" (131).
The book's most important contribution, however, is found in the three middle thematic chapters: chapters 5 ("Villages and villagers, land and landowners"), 6 ("Elite society"), and 7 ("Exchange and trade: the Carolingian economy"). In these chapters readers encounter those portions of Carolingian historiography that have changed most in the decades separating The Carolingian World from the textbooks of McKitterick and Riché. Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages casts a long shadow over this portion of the book, and the analytical mode and set of questions that shaped Framing are on full display here.  In these chapters, narrative and well-known historical figures give way to analysis of social structures and processes, often backed up by the evidence of the relatively recent boom in early medieval archaeology.
Chapter 5 considers the changes in rural life brought about by the fading away of the Roman state and the rise of Carolingian power. Here we find treatment of the villa in its post-Roman incarnations, a consideration of the makeup of the rural population, and a presentation of the state of the question about the origins of the bipartite manor. Throughout, the authors resist an older tendency to see the early medieval countryside as static and unchanging, just as they insist on the striking diversity of the use and organization of land inside territories under Carolingian control. The holders of all this land are the subjects of Chapter 6. The focus on ties of kinship that once had dominated study of the Carolingian aristocracy recedes here in favor of a consideration of "aristocratic identity," that is, the modes and signs by which aristocrats defined themselves as different from the rest of the population and how, in absence of the complicated vocabulary of aristocratic titles familiar from the high Middle Ages, they established and maintained internal hierarchy. Chapter 7 presents a consideration of Carolingian economic activity in which the authors argue for a gradual trend in the core Carolingian territories toward increased agricultural productivity that in turn leads to strengthened, increasingly specialized, and more widely spread systems of market exchange. In addition, the authors want us to see how these developments in the heart of the empire were aided and abetted at its fringes, notably north among the Vikings and south along the Mediterranean. Long distance trade in luxury goods, so central to the style of economic analysis pioneered by Pirenne and practiced by his many successors, retreats to a minor role, with the center stage played here by much more local and much less flashy agricultural production. While Carolingian economic vitality and sophistication may not compare to that of subsequent medieval centuries, the authors emphasize that this incremental Carolingian prosperity in important ways should be seen as setting the stage for the improved economic conditions of the central and high Middle Ages. The greatest strength of chapters 5 through 7 is how the authors have brought together and synthesized these often difficult historiographies at a moment of great change and possibility. Students and professionals needing to come up to speed on these productive lines of inquiry into the early Middle Ages can safely start here and then read back into the complicated literatures through the thorough notes.
With all the space given over to villages, aristocrats, and economy, other things had to be left out. As the authors admit (8), The Carolingian World goes lightly through issues relating to what used to be called the "Carolingian Renaissance": art, scholarship, book production, and libraries all appear but briefly in a crisp ten pages at the end of chapter 3 (142-53). So too does the book mostly pass over monastic issues not directly related to practices of monastic land holding. Benedict of Aniane and the often bitter ninth-century debate over the shape of Carolingian monasticism turns up but once, embedded into a wider discussion of Louis the Pious's strategies of rule and self presentation (201). Even the Carolingian frontiers, particularly the Spanish march and the interaction with neighbors to the east, get little play. These omissions are not necessarily flaws for, as the authors show, these are all topics well covered elsewhere, not least in the textbooks of McKitterick and Riché The Carolingian World is designed to replace. Still, the authors' preference for detailed coverage of the most central elements of current Carolingian historiography at the expense of some of the topics that once had dominated the field but are now quiet means that The Carolingian World is not exactly the one-volume introduction it might at first appear to be. Perhaps instead we should see this book a little less as a textbook, and more as both an extended demonstration of the vitality and interest of contemporary Carolingian scholarship, and an extremely attractive and useful invitation into this rapidly evolving historiography for a new generation.
1. Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms Under the Carolingians (London and New York: Longman, 1983); and Pierre Riché, Les Carolingiens: une famille qui fit l'Europe (Paris: Hachette, 1983), English translation by Michael Idomir Allen as The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe (Philadelphia: Philadelphia University Press, 1993).
2. Chris Wickham. Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).