Folk and Fields Suffice
By Robin Fleming
Allen Lane (Penguin), 2011
The three simple words that form the title of Robin Fleming’s formidable, fascinating new book Britain After Rome evoke an entire world – and such a world! Barbarians massing in the north beyond Hadrian’s Wall as the military might and civic organization of Rome’s 350-year occupation of the island quickly crumbled; soldiers being sent home when all shipments of their pay stopped arriving; a fragile and sometimes beautiful Roman outpost-society suddenly facing the end of its existence, hurriedly burying its gold (hoping somehow to return, unwilling to trust their treasures to bandit-haunted roads) and packing its carts to rush south and ship out for safety before the darkness descended. The distant Empire was too weak to protect its most far-flung outposts; in 410, the emperor Honorius famously sent a message to all the civitates of Britain telling them they were on their own against the waves of barbarian invaders rushing into the void left by Rome.
It’s a tremendously evocative picture, and like all such pictures, it obscures as many truths as it reveals. The time-table is in some ways correct and strict: in the eighth and ninth decade of the fourth century, Roman law was still in force throughout Britain, Roman curfews, Roman taxes, Roman sentries and garrisons … and by the first decade of the fifth century, all that had changed. But such things are only the trappings and the suits of real cultural upheaval – in reality, Saxons, Britons, northern tribes, Norsemen and many others had been making inroads in trade and settlement for years, and quite enough of their handiwork survives for us to know they weren’t screaming savages. The sudden withdrawal of Roman rule didn’t change day to night; all it did was sharply accelerate changes that were beginning anyway. When Rome left, a ragged admixture of kingdoms and nationalities abruptly found vastly greater freedom and opportunity – and the dangers they presented to each other increased as well.
A more complex and unsteady period than most, in other words, and a perpetual draw to historians who like the challenge of an era for which so few reliable written records exist. Robin Fleming’s Britain After Rome is the latest in editor David Cannadine’s ongoing “Penguin History of Britain,” a series that’s featured such solid, invigorating volumes as David Carpenter’s The Struggle for Mastery and Mark Kishlansky’s A Monarchy Transformed. Cannadine himself is a master of popular, engaging historical narrative, and readability seems to be a top priority for this entire project. In this regard and so many others Fleming’s book doesn’t disappoint: quite apart from its exhaustive scholarship and research, Britain After Rome is also a well-told story. The book’s opening inscription is in ancient Greek, and its opening quotation is from Middlemarch: the combination promises great learning lightly worn.
The reader will not be disappointed. Fleming grants at the outset that most histories of this or any other period are in large part the chronicles of kings, queens, princes, and bishops, and she warns that “when we let people like these loose in our narrative histories,” they tend to elbow out all the hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk who lived, worked, loved, and died all around them all the time. One of the main aims of her book is to free the story of post-Roman Britain from the accounts of such luminaries, and a large part of this entails freeing that story from its traditional story-tellers. Traditional sources like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Gildas or the Norse sagas or even Gerald of Wales are treated gingerly, with gloves and long forceps, always with an eye toward the flaws that such sources almost inevitably have. No source is given more wary yet appreciative treatment than the greatest of them all, the Venerable Bede himself:
Mercia was not among the earliest English kingdoms to emerge, but by the middle decades of the seventh century it was a powerhouse. Still, we know almost nothing about its beginnings, and most of the surviving texts which describe its history were written by its victims rather than its friends. Bede, for example, was born and bred in Northumbria, a kingdom much diminished by Mercian successes. As a consequence, he was so hostile to Mercia that he consulted no Mercian informants for his history and included no stories about Mercian saints, holy women or monks.
Fleming spends much more of her time in the realms of archeology and bio-archeology. Dung beetle remains and soft-tissue traces share space in every chapter with monkish poems and saints’ lives. The mute evidence of the science lab is brought to marvelous life by Fleming’s unquenchable curiosity – I don’t think I’ve ever read a work of history with so many question-marks in it. Given the nature of the evidence, most of those questions are funerary in nature, but the results are just the opposite, as Fleming herself notes. “When confronted with the skeletons of a mother and baby who died in childbirth,” she tells us, “or the remains of a mutilated man dumped into a shallow grave beside the corpse of a decapitated dog, or a dead child with a cleft palate, we begin to understand that the people of early medieval Britain did live and did breathe.” We begin to understand this through experts asking the right questions. The various inhabitants of post-Roman Britain got up to some very strange activities in their burial-grounds only to leave us with mysteries. About these mysteries Fleming is not only inquisitive (about the woman’s head found buried at Bidford-on-Avon, she asks, “The burial of the head was done with the greatest of care, but what happened to the rest of the woman?”) but compassionate (about the remains of four children found in a Norse burial mound, “One cannot help but wonder whose children they were, and one cannot help but fear that their last hours were terrifying”). To Fleming’s trained eye, these burial sites in all their grotesque variety tell stories about anger, retribution – and perhaps an overriding fear:
Here is evidence for horrific crimes, for the breaching of dangerous taboos and for appalling acts of brutality. All of these bodies not only point to gut-wrenching violence, but smack of ritualistic behaviour, and even, perhaps, to a niggling fear that the reluctant dead might not lay quietly in their graves, and that steps sometimes had to be taken to ensure that they would not rise again.
The dead tell their tales, or try to, but this book is mainly about how the living went about their days. Fleming (in a rather nifty egghead-style phrase) notes the “creeping inegalitarianism” that begins to work its way into early medieval England, as money and resources re-concentrate in a smaller social nexus. “Whatever special stories lay behind specific triumphs and defeats,” she observes, “the results were similar: by the mid-sixth century, a few people had more of everything – resources, alliances, access – than their grandparents or most of their contemporaries had had.” She traces the growth of a handful of key cities in this new England and the parallel growth of farm holdings from coast to coast. The growth of money, the growth of commerce, the gradual strengthening of regional kings – Britain After Rome treats all of these broad-canvas subjects with intelligence and economical grace. And despite Fleming’s early protestations, she herself is quite adept at bringing those scene-stealing single characters to life, as in the case of a Carolingian Norseman named Godfred:
He could fight on horseback like a Frank; he collected tribute like a Frank; he oversaw trading communities like a Frank; he undertook ambitious public works projects like a Frank. And he called himself king, like a Frank … Godfred had watched and learned and copied the ways of the Franks’ great king Charlegmagne, and now he was successfully beating them at their own game. But, as a Norseman, he had one thing that the Franks did not have: a fleet.
With increased centralization, increased wealth, and increased bureaucracy, there came power: in this way the lessons of forgotten Rome were re-learned. Prosperous landholders, Fleming writes, “were not the only people thriving in these new years.” Something much bigger was growing:
The state, too, grew during this period, because English kings and their helpers were able to revolutionize the way coins were being made, reminted and controlled, and they were increasingly skilled at collecting ever larger amounts of tolls and taxes. The story of an expanding economy, a prosperous middling elite, and increasing surplus, booming towns and a strengthening state is crucially important, because this world was going to have a very long run.
Essential to that long run was the introduction and gradual spread of Christianity to the various kingdoms of Britain, a process that was almost always as halting and piecemeal as it strikes the readers of such works as Beowulf. The ruling elite would convert for a time, then change their minds, or else they’d pick some elements of the new faith and reject others. These kingdoms, Fleming reminds us, were in a “dizzying state of flux,” essentially learning how to exist and creating their own blueprints along the way. Many fledgling kings and their councilors looked to the same source as that worthy Godfred, the “wine-drinking, Christ-loving Franks just across the Channel.” When St. Augustine of Canterbury and his fellow missionaries arrived in Kent in 597, the fierce men and women they encountered were steeped in animism and blood sacrifice – but they were also growing shrewd in the ways of government, and they quickly realized that they needed one of the main things this new faith had: paperwork. With clergy came clerks:
Many an English king in this period, when first encountering foreign missionaries, must have considered conversion to Christianity as one more status-enhancing move, especially since the new religion came bundled with impressive writing and building technologies, and since one of the perks of becoming Christian was access to the expertise of foreign churchmen from more Roman parts of the world, who were willing and able to help their convert-kings more efficiently administer their territories and more profitably manage their resources.
Fleming’s outstanding account covers the whole of the “long run” these enterprising kings had in the land – her book ends four years after the Norman Conquest – far more time than, for example, the United States has been in existence. Gradual transformation had always been the key to that long run, and it had been at work even on the Romans before they left for the strange shores of their motherland. Kipling movingly dramatized this in his “Roman Centurion’s Song,” in which a veteran soldier begs not to be mustered home:
Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid – my wife – my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief, toil, age. Memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?
For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June’s long-lighted days?
Even after the soldiers and the citizens had fled, those customs, griefs, and toils remained, and Fleming has sifted through their at times bewildering detritus in search of the ordinary people whose unwritten lives fill her narrative. We have dead toddlers mutely attesting to a surprisingly high infant survival rate; we have much evidence of people living long lives of hard labor; we have a man who combed his hair over his bald spot, little guessing that centuries later his vanity would be on display. Through all of this, thanks to Fleming, we do indeed get glimpses of people who lived and breathed. This is the work of all first-rate history, and Britain After Rome carries it out in a sustained, low-key triumph.
Liz Satterwaite is an ex-Bostonian living and working in DeKalb, Illinois as a freelance writer and part-time substitute teacher.