19.09.32 Diarte-Blasco and Christie (eds.), Interpreting Transformations of People and Landscapes in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

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Cam Grey

The Medieval Review 19.09.32

Diarte-Blasco, Pilar, and Neil Christie, eds. Interpreting Transformations of People and Landscapes in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Archaeological Approaches and Issues. Barnsley, UK: Oxbow Books, 2018. pp. xvii, 218. ISBN: 978-1-78925-034-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cam Grey
University of Pennsylvania
cgrey@sas.upenn.edu

This collection of seventeen papers, together with a programmatic introduction by one of the editors (Neil Christie), grew out of two conference-workshops held within the space of a month in 2016. While those conferences initially treated separately the central provinces of the erstwhile Roman empire--at the first conference, held at the University of Leicester--and its western and north-western reaches--at the second, hosted by the British School at Rome--the ensuing volume is organized so as to emphasize both the particular character of regional scholarly preoccupations and the fruitful consonances and dissonances between them. Broadly, the contributors engage with questions that will feel familiar to scholars steeped in the prevailing narratives of political, socio-economic, and cultural transformation of late and post-Roman western Europe: did towns endure, decline, or reinvent themselves in the period, and what institutions were implicated in those processes? What happened to the networks of power and economic connectivity that had accreted to the villa-dominated landscapes of the Roman world when those villas disappeared? How different from local populations were the barbarian groups who settled in various regions and under diverse conditions, and what roles did the two groups play in the transformation of those regions from provinces to kingdoms?

What is unfamiliar, however--and, as a consequence, both new and exciting--is the extent to which the contributors are committed to moving beyond unreflective top-down narratives of cause-and-effect in pursuit of the messy realities of lived experience; their willingness to challenge processual explanations and focus instead on the shocking ruptures of the period; and their frank acknowledgment of the inhibiting effects of ingrained explanatory canons for our understanding of the many and varied trajectories of settlement and land use, power dynamics and spatial organization. In this regard, the volume succeeds admirably in both providing a series of status quaestionum and sketching roadmaps for future scholarship to follow. This review will, therefore, largely eschew rehearsals of the specific arguments of particular contributions--although specialists and non-experts alike will find much of value throughout the volume. Instead, I identify some methodological, interpretational, and analytical commonalities that infuse the volume with a striking degree of cohesion. For organizational purposes, I group these under three broad headings: first, the nature of the Roman State, its enduring influence or apparent dissolution, and the role of these differential processes in implementing, resisting, or modulating observable changes in settlement and land use; second, the nature and complexity of the countrysides in question; and third, the role that we might expect new evidentiary categories and new explanatory principles to play into the future.

For the contributors to this volume the presence of the State, its role as economic engine or agent of identity-formation varied across the western and northwestern provinces of the late and post-Roman world. The provincial and military reorganizations of the empire in the late third and early fourth centuries loom large here. In Gian Petro Brogiolo's account of the fates of towns in northern Italy, for example, central decision-making about defense and imperial investment in the fortification of some towns but not others were fundamental to the emergence of a new hierarchy of cities in the region. Meanwhile, in his account of the reconfiguration and monumentalization of military installations in the Lower Rhine area, Stijn Heeren detects its guiding hand in safeguarding economic connections with the province of Britannia. In a complementary contribution, Roger Collins emphasizes the ongoing reverberations of this reorganization, not only in creating what he dubs "military estates" on the north-western edges of the Empire but also, potentially, in influencing the forms that post-Roman political and economic landscapes took in the ensuing centuries.

The differential influence and after-effects of the Roman State are pivotal also to Roger White's account of the contrasting fates of elites in eastern and western Britain, and Andy Seaman's treatment of the equally varied trajectories of ethnogenesis in eastern and western Wales. While the two studies differ in the explanatory principles they bring to bear on the problem, in both cases it is in regions where the Roman State is weakly represented in the fourth and fifth centuries that a robust and confident aristocracy may be observed emerging in the sixth. These studies, therefore, turn on its head the long-ingrained assumption that the ebbing away of the Roman state led inevitably to socio-economic, cultural, and political impoverishment of local populations. Likewise, in presenting the preliminary results of an ambitious synthetic treatment of burial practices in northern Italy, Alexandra Chavarría Arnau eschews easy narratives of Christianization and barbarization, and emphasizes instead the continuing influence of individual, familial, and communal agency in determining how the dead were interred.

The impression that one gains from this volume is of an enduringly vital and complex collection of rural landscapes, cultural and socio-economic practices--both before and after the heydays of the so-called Roman villa system. In terms of settlement, land use and economic exploitation, the fundamental question would appear to be whether the complex, multipolar landscapes that emerge with increasing clarity in, for example, sixth-century southern Italy (Roberto Goffredo and Giuliano Volpe), Novempopulana in southern Gaul (Simon Esmonde Cleary), north-eastern Spain (Pilar Diarte-Blasco) and Britain (Abigail E. Tompkins) are novelties of the post-Roman world, or merely newly-visible evidence of much longer-term spatial articulations. Put another way, are we witnessing a fundamental reorganization of the countryside in the wake of the dissolution of the Roman state--as argued, for example, by Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado for Inner Iberia and Enrique Ariño for the territory of Salamanca--or has the withering of the Roman villa as an attractor for scholarly attention simply allowed us to notice this multitude of smaller-scale installations, as if for the first time--a position embraced by Claude Raynaud for southern Gaul and, with more caution, by Javier Arce in his synthetic treatment of the transformation of rural society in late antique Hispania. Clearly, there is no simple, singular answer to the question. But it is significant that the divergences emerge not only between more and less "central" provinces of the erstwhile Roman world--an assumption that had underpinned the original form that the two conferences took--but also within and between microregions of those provinces and the scholars who study them.

The resulting analytical tension between different scales of analysis is even more evident when we consider the role that should be attributed to environmental and climatic conditions in effecting, impelling, or enforcing the political and socio-economic transformations under discussion here. For Roberto Meneghini, a temporally-concentrated collection of natural disasters in the form of epidemics, famines, and exceptional weather events had far-reaching and irreversible effects on the cities of the Italian peninsula in the middle of the sixth century. Lauro Olmo-Enciso infers a comparable concatenation of environmental and epidemiological factors, coinciding in suggestive ways with the fundamental societal changes that he traces for the central Iberian peninsula. By contrast, in his explicitly landscape-focused treatment of the socio-political, cultural and economic transformations of fourth- through sixth-century Britain, Stephen Rippon is more cautious, noting a need for more careful consideration of the provenance, granularity, and chronologies of the proxies employed in current paleo-environmental reconstructions. It is clear that, alongside botanical and osteological materials--used to good effect in several of the contributions to this collection--the climatological data promises to expand and enhance our understanding of this period of "stress, upheaval and change" (Christie, xi). But the information it provides is no magic bullet or deus ex machina. On the contrary, it demands challenge and interrogation in the same way that the narratives of a gradual, inexorable decline of Roman influence and its inevitably deleterious effects have been exposed to scrutiny in the present volume. As the many and varied contributions have ably demonstrated, as well as seeking to answer our questions, we must acknowledge the responsibility to question our answers.

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