The Dark Ages were Dark

by on August 12, 2006 at 5:25 am in Books, History | Permalink

It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’ occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilization’ collapsed and a ‘dark age’ ensued.  The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both the East and the West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, ‘transformed’ into a medieval form.  However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view; it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries.  This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches.  It was no mere transformation — it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as ‘the end of a civilization.’

That is from Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.  This recent book is the best integration of archaeology and economics I have seen; it is also a first-rate economic history in its own right, as well as a history of pottery.  Highly recommended for those who think they might like it.

1 joan August 12, 2006 at 8:28 am

The link does not work.

2 RWB August 12, 2006 at 8:55 am

Not being a historian, I do have to say that I think that living standards must necessarily have fallen given the collapse of “international” trade. In the case of Rome, by “international” I mean within the empire–but the empire was so large that such trade was in effect international. If people in Gaul could eat bread made with Egyptian wheat, then they didn’t have to grow their own and could devote their efforts to more profitable activities. Once Rome fell, every little kingdom was responsible for feeding and clothing itself.

This is just a supposition on my part. I am interested in the book. It seems obvious, though, that when the breadbasket that was Egypt no longer shipped its surplus wheat to Europe, living standards in Europe must have suffered.

3 elambend August 12, 2006 at 9:48 am

What I find amazing is the extent of roman technological advancement (including a water-run wheat mill in southern France). Even more amazing is that much of it was lost would not be re-invented for several hundred years. I assume that at first maintenance stopped, and then no one knew how things worked and then no one knew what these things used to do. It wasn’t just a political collapse/change; everything was lost, and in a relatively short time.

4 Swimmy August 12, 2006 at 11:12 am

It’s important to keep the narrative of a collapse of the standard of living during that period as it still remains one of the best examples to refute historical dialectics.

5 Barkley Rosser August 12, 2006 at 12:34 pm

I have not read the book, but a long-established alternative view
is that things did not really fully collapse until after the Muslim
conquest of Spain in the 700s. Prior to that there was decline,
but the structure of trade mostly remained in place, even as it
declined and the urban infrastructure decayed. The real low point
probably came in the 900s with the Viking invasions. Fernand Braudel
has provided demographic evidence along these lines.

BTW, there is an old argument between Henri Pirenne and Braudel over
what triggered the urban revival that began in the following century,
trade or internal infrastructure and organization? A considered
view would say they grew together.

6 Barkley Rosser August 12, 2006 at 2:16 pm


Actually the big player in this period was the Church. That was why it
was such a big deal to get the barbarian invaders baptized, converted,
and so forth, preferably to a sect that obeyed Rome. Hence the
favoring of the Frankish Clovis over his Arian Goth rivals.

The Vikings attacked the monasteries and churches, not just the
remnant urban formations. This was part of why they created so
much damage, until they got Christianized also, thus becoming the
Normans in France.

In the debate between Pirenne and Braudel, Braudel emphasizes the
revival of the monasteries and churches as beginning the revival
of the economy with fairs and so forth. Pirenne emphasized long
distance trade. Both depended on getting the Vikings under control

Another point here is that these effects depend on where in the
former empire one was. Thus, the decline in the 400-600 period
was much worse in distant England. There was essentially a mass
genocide of the Brythons by the Anglo-Saxons in the 500s, a period
from which there are no records in the main area. However, in Italy,
things did not decline all that much, and many of the “barbarian
rulers” were more capable than their Roman predecessors, for example
in Ravenna, where the sewers finally got repaired for the first time
since Trajan’s rule under a Gothic king.

7 Steve Sailer August 12, 2006 at 6:38 pm

Tyler is passing on nativist anti-immigrant propaganda. How could the immigration into the Roman Empire of millions of illiterate barbarian Germans possibly have hurt anything?

8 Dan Klein August 13, 2006 at 9:03 am

Does Ward-Perkins cite the relevant literature, namely, Monty Python?
“OK, besides roads, writing, sewage and law, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

9 Bill Harshaw August 14, 2006 at 11:05 am

There’s a discussion at between Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather.

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