15.08.47, Rollason, Early Medieval Europe

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Rachel Anderson

The Medieval Review 15.08.47

Rollason, David. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1050: The Birth of Western Society. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2012. pp. 416. ISBN: 978-1408251218 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Rachel Anderson
Grand Valley State University

A few years ago, when I had the luxury of a sabbatical, I spent some time in southern England, making various pilgrimages to Anglo-Saxon sites. One of the most interesting was The West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, located outside Bury St Edmunds on a working archaeological site. There, scholars have been practicing "experimental archaeology" since the mid 1970s; they take the various hypotheses put forth about the construction of Anglo-Saxon buildings from the surviving traces, such as post-holes, they uncovered there, and then actually build the buildings they think might have existed. This process yields valuable information not only on building techniques and challenges, but also on what it would have been like to live in the buildings, or in one tragic case, on what remains of a building that burned down.

This approach to scholarship is what David Rollason channels in his textbook Early Medieval Europe 300-1050. Rather than follow a traditional narrative account of the period, featuring the rise and fall of kings, great battles, and powerful church influence, he approaches the era thematically, framing his information as a series of scholarly debates about the merits and drawbacks of several models or approaches to the history of the period. For example, in the second chapter, "From Roman Empire to Barbarian Kingdoms: Cataclysm or Transition?," the debate appears in the very title. In this chapter, Rollason outlines three models or, as he also calls them, hypotheses, for understanding the move from late antiquity to early medieval in western Europe. He asks the reader to consider two "Doom and Gloom" models: one describes the traditional "decline and decadence" explanation for the end of Roman hegemony in the West; the other centers on the strength and ferocity of the barbarian invaders as the primary reason for the fall of Rome. The third model, which he calls the "Deliberate Roman Policy" model, focuses on the relationship of the eastern and western Roman empires, and the consolidation of power in Constantinople. In his discussion of all three models, Rollason presents supporting evidence but also asks probing questions of each model's assumptions. He encourages his readers to follow up on these questions, and to investigate how various "facts" might be interpreted in multiple ways. No model is favored over the other--though the "Deliberate Policy" model comes off best due to its complexity and closing position in the chapter--and readers are encouraged to decide for themselves which model they find the most compelling.

This experimental, analytic approach may be frustrating if a reader simply wants to ascertain Rollason's interpretation of the source materials. When I started reading this book, the frequent asides to the reader in second person made me cringe a bit. However, as I delved more deeply, I started to feel that this approach makes the book an excellent text for use in the classroom. Readers are not permitted to absorb information passively while reading this book. They are invited--even cajoled--into analyzing the issues raised by Rollason. Each chapter ends with a distillation of its main themes into "Broad Research Questions" and brief bibliographic essays on more in-depth secondary sources, first listing those that provide overviews, and then more specific resources for further research on particular questions. Much of the scholarship mentioned is quite current; works written before 1980 seem to be included only when they are foundational scholarly classics--for example, the chapter on the ideology of kinship rightly directs readers to Wallace-Hadrill's Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (1971) and Ullmann's The Carolingian Renaissance and the Idea of Kingship (1969).

As previously stated, the book is organized thematically. After a brief introduction and the first section (marked part II) on the late antique/early medieval transition, Rollason moves to a discussion of peoples and nation formation, debating the major migration hypotheses and questioning how early medieval peoples thought of themselves in relation to their social and physical environments. With this foundation laid, part III turns to examining (mostly secular) power structures. Chapter 4 deals with the differing ideologies of kingship within Roman, Christian, and pagan worldviews. Chapter 5 examines bureaucratic power, looking more closely at the textual record of laws and edicts, and the ways in which power was assumed and deployed by the king and the aristocracy via these channels. The sixth and final chapter of this section deals with what Rollason terms "personal" power: he deals with power at the most local level, and (for the only sustained time) speaks about women's roles in the structures of medieval life.

Part IV turns to the economic life of the early medieval European world, looking at trade structures (chap. 7), agriculture (chap. 8), and urban development (chap. 9). Rollason introduces this section with a detailed description of Henri Pirenne's early 20th-century work on medieval trade structures, as outlined in his key text, Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925, 1939). Rollason lays out Pirenne's influential work as the starting point for analytic questioning. The chapter on trade asks a reader to evaluate Pirenne's assumptions about trading continuity through the Merovingian period. Rollason leads the reader to question Pirenne's assertion that trade was cut off only by the Arab military success in the Mediterranean, making this trade route inhospitable to Christian traders. Rollason even goes further, and asks the reader to question Pirenne's assumptions--and those of many other scholars--that trade was guided solely by a desire for profit. Was it perhaps, as Rollason intriguingly asks, "really state-controlled activity not aimed at profit, or the working of gift-exchange, or simply a thinly disguised aspect of plundering and tribute-taking" (149)? As in the other chapters, readers are encouraged to evaluate the sources and come to their own conclusions. To complete the section, the next chapter turns our attention to the agricultural economy, questioning the role of the "closed" economies that Pirenne postulated (primarily halting long-distance commerce), and thus setting up the basis for this section's final chapter on urban developments and the re-emergence of commerce and trade out of these closed systems during the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The thematic nature of this book's approach to the early medieval period allows Rollason to shift his focus to specific moments throughout the period. Thus while part IV ends with the increasing bustle of the emerging urban centers of such places as York and Winchester, part V pulls a reader back into the Age of Conversion to deal with the development of Christianity during the period. Rollason frames the debate here between two fundamental models of conversion: the "top-down" model that stipulates that conversion was imposed on a people from a powerful (royal) source, and the "bottom-up" model that postulates that "it was so inherently attractive to people at large that they embraced it in large numbers" (232). Chapter 10 frames the discussion of conversion within these two models; chapter 11 looks at the subsequent rise of monasticism in a similar way. Chapter 12, which looks at the roles of bishops and popes in the early medieval world, somewhat abandons this framework. Instead, Rollason's tone here shifts to one of description rather than debate. Like the preceding chapter, the final section of the book is much more descriptive rather than analytic. The topic is "Scholarship and Art," and chapter 13 describes various scholarly and literary texts, while chapter 14 provides an overview of the art forms of the period. Although Rollason attempts to keep up the debate/competing models theme, his opposition here of Roman vs. Christian influence on literary and artistic forms seems a bit cursory and forced. Indeed, both chapters are significantly shorter than the others, and thus this whole section seems an afterthought.

In sum, this book is an excellent introduction to some of the key sites of debate and scholarly discussion in the period. As such, it makes a fine choice as a textbook for a medieval history class; however, I fear that without a parallel text written in a more traditional narrative mode, students will miss many of the nuances of time distinction within the period, and not retain a sense of many of those "people, places and events" that are also key to an understanding of the period's history. Furthermore, however alternative this textbook is in its approach, it still hews to a traditional presentation of women, whose treatment is minimal, and pictures the Islamic world as substantially different from, and in conflict with, its Western counterpart. These considerations not withstanding, the book has significant merit as a classroom textbook; by framing the reader's experience of this period with an emphasis on the diversity of interpretations of the scant evidence, Rollason empowers the student to become a scholar, and move from passive absorption to active questioning.

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