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22.10.09 Fafinski, Roman Infrastructure in Early Medieval Britain

22.10.09 Fafinski, Roman Infrastructure in Early Medieval Britain


Roman Infrastructure in Early Medieval Britain is the publication of Mateusz Fafinski’s doctoral thesis, and it offers a thorough analysis of the role Roman infrastructure played in the formation of sub-Roman and early medieval Britain. The book, however, is neither an evaluation of the afterlife of Roman architecture in Britain (even if it addresses the archaeological evidence and its most recent reassessments), nor a study of the use and adaptation of Roman constructions in later periods. This book is about the memory of Romanitas and how Romanitas was performed through the physical and symbolic reuse of Roman structures. It is about the place of Roman roads and cities in the creation of post-Roman societies and the impact these infrastructures had in the formation of polities. It covers a wide chronological scope (from the fourth to the ninth centuries) and a broad range of material, including archaeology, charters, chronicles, and other historical sources, and brings them together in a solid interpretive and theoretical framework. The book is organised in four different sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue.

The first chapter (21-42) is a methodological introduction as much as it is a glossary of terms, defining “infrastructure” (beyond a purely literal understanding of the term), “governance resource” (elements which could be used for social and territorial management), “continuity” (physical vs symbolic continuities), “re-use” (material vs immaterial, re-use vs re-adaptation), [1] and “city” (conceived as an institution, as a physical space or as a monumental assemblage). All of these are terms key to the understanding of the historiography of post-Roman Britain and set the frame of reference for how these terms are used in the rest of the book. This chapter also explores memory and reception of the Roman past in medieval contexts, although it would be very interesting to see what else could have been obtained from these theoretical perspectives if a more direct approach to Place Theory (which is only hinted at) had been taken. [2] Romanitas appears prominently in this chapter, since it is the way in which “being Roman” was performed and perceived that defined, in many aspects, the understanding and the usefulness of the past.

The second chapter (43-82) focuses on Roman roads, their survival, and their use based on the evidence preserved in charters, both “Anglo-Saxon” or “Eastern” and “Western” or “Welsh.” Roads are essential items in the articulation and organisation of a territory, and those inherited from the Roman past formed a network focused on those settlements that fulfilled a role in the Roman administration. However, the changes in settlement patterns and political foci meant that some roads ceased to be active trackways. Most remained in use, and some of them (plus some bridges) were even repaired and re-surfaced, but even those that ceased to be used remained as key elements, organising the conceptual perception of the landscape and acting as boundary lines. These roads also seem to indicate that Roman modes of territory exploitation (including field patterns) did not change until the seventh and eighth centuries.

The third chapter focuses on the large topic of urbanism (83-142), which is prefaced by a thorough discussion of the continuity/discontinuity historiography. The author underlines the difficulties in understanding what a city is, expanding on what is presented in the first chapter, and stresses the fact that in Britain urbanism was extremely regionalised, and there were as many “adaptations of the Roman world” (86) as there were cities and territories. Fafinski divides the evolution of urban contexts into three chronological periods: sub-Roman (late fourth to mid-fifth c.), pre-conversion (mid-fifth to late sixth.), and conversion period (seventh and eighth c.), which correspond to phases of 1) evolution of late Roman patterns, 2) a period of state formation, and 3) the consolidation of the political establishment. [3] The chapter shows that Roman-style urban life had already begun to change in the fourth century, that despite some signs of civic continuity into the fifth (and maybe the sixth) centuries, the materiality and the archaeology of these urban settlements remains problematic, but that their symbolic and central importance were far more important than walls, ramparts, or other constructions. Cities were focal points in the conception of place and space, and even if they offered nothing but ruins of the Roman past, they served a key purpose as legitimising foci for the church and the emerging early medieval polities of the early medieval centuries.

The fourth and last chapter (143-193) is devoted to the way the Church used Roman infrastructure to (re-)establish itself in Britain in the seventh century. The creation of new sacred landscapes needed a Roman foundation; sometimes this was done with cities with continuing occupation, some others in places where the memory of the Roman past was still clearly urban, while in some cases the Roman and urban links were tenuous. The creation of these new Roman-inspired Christian landscapes involved as much reclamation of the past as reinvention and reconstruction, if anything because Romanitas was an idea that could be performed almost in any place that had a memory of that period attached to it.

In the epilogue, the author underlines once more the symbolic importance of memory and of ruins, which could be as powerful as usable or used infrastructure. The use of Roman infrastructure in post-Roman Britain was a series of adaptations and re-inventions, and “this can hardly be seen as evidence for those infrastructures becoming irrelevant” (196).

Like most other Amsterdam University Press works, the book is presented in a handsome hardback edition, neatly formatted, but the maps, as it happens in other books in their early medieval series, are printed grainy and difficult to read. The core bibliography used is adequate and up to date; the author can be excused for using fairly outdated references for the Iberian Peninsula, for example, and only the absence of Pam Crabtree’s 2018 book was surprising in a study with such a heavy emphasis on urbanism. [4]

Fafinski’s book is, overall, a fantastic work that adds to historical and archaeological discussions of the period a very-needed perspective based on the perception and the multiple ways of using the past. Romanitas in early medieval Britain did not have to be reinvented or reintroduced, only reimagined based on what could be remembered and what could be seen by those who needed to use it.

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Notes:

1. Cf. Douglas Underwood, (Re)use Ruins: Public Building in the Cities of the Late Antique West, A.D. 300-600 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

2. Tim Cresswell, Place: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (London: Routledge, 2014).

3. A phasing that is noticeable, at different paces, also in the continent: Javier Martínez Jiménez, Isaac Sastre de Diego, and Carlos Tejerizo García, The Iberian Peninsula 300-850: an Archaeological Perspective (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

4. Pam Crabtree, Early Medieval Britain. The Rebirth of Towns in the Post-Roman West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).