Goodreads Reading challenge 9/65 – ‘Britain After Rome’

On a previous trip to the UK, Shelley gave me a wonderful surprise. We were staying with friends in Manchester, and she had arranged for us to spend a couple of days at Chester. The centre of the city is extremely picturesque.

River Dee

River Dee

The centre of town is still surrounded by the Roman wall erected when the city was known as Deva.

Picture 330

The local museum had an interesting display that showed how the town changed once the Romans left. Later Anglo-Saxon settlements lay outside the old walls. Britain After Rome describes the same process across Roman Britain.

Picture 320

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, King Edgar came to Chester and, as a sign of his power, was rowed up the river Dee to St. John’s church by eight sub-kings. There are quite a number of medieval buildings, and the cathedral of St Werburgh had a fascinating quire stall that has an armrest carved like an elephant. The medieval carver, having never seen such a beast, saw fit to give it hooves.

happy reading, all.


Britain After RomeBritain After Rome by Robin Fleming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Britain after Rome is the second volume of the new seven-volume Penguin History of Britain series. It updates the old nine-volume Pelican History of England, which I greatly enjoyed back in the day (and which still gather dust on my shelves).

Fleming’s introduction sets out the framework established by series editor David Carradine. The first of these are that there are no footnotes or discussions of historiography. The third is that it should appeal to, ‘general readers, undergraduates, graduate students and professional historians’.

Though Fleming doesn’t ignore written evidence, much of the evidence comes from archaeological sources, which gives the work an interesting texture. Firstly, it means that a straightforward narrative account is ruled out. Chronology and archaeology are weaved into a rich and dynamic account of the formative years of post-Roman Britain. Each chapter features extensive archaeological evidence drawn largely from burial sites.

It’s a pity that historiography isn’t discussed, because the manner in which archaeology is used to frame our view of the period is quite single-minded. Fleming argues that the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons was far less bloody than is traditionally supposed. This rests on two factors. The first is the commonality of grave goods found among Britons and Anglo-Saxons alike. This suggests a level of peaceful trade and ‘rubbing along’ that that wouldn’t occur if the two communities were constantly at war. The second is that there are few burials that suggest the kinds of violent deaths that would occur when a community resists invasion.

An unstated corollary is that accounts emphasising the terror brought by the newcomers is thus greatly exaggerated. But while it’s almost certainly true that such accounts are exaggerated, it also doesn’t follow that the process was therefore largely peaceful. Men that perish in battle will tend to be buried where they fell, and not near their settlements (though ‘non-combatant’ victims presumably will be if their compatriots continue to occupy the site afterwards).

Secondly, we often imagine that sustained conflict means large numbers of dead. Imagine a village of 50 or so Britons. Six years later, their population is down to 43 following a series of skirmishes with newcomers. That sounds like quite low levels of violence, but it’s about 14% of the population. In the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, the Soviet population sustained enormous losses, but from 1941 to 1946 it actually fell by a slightly lesser percentage. I’m not suggesting that this imagined example represents what actually occurred. It simply illustrates that not finding many victims of violence is not necessarily a sign that the process was entirely (or even mostly) peaceful.

The opening chapter on the end of Roman power in Britain shows that the economy, structured around supplying the needs of the three legions based there was radically altered during the crises of the third century. Local pottery takes up a larger percentage of the archaeological is in many ways a smaller economy, but one not so distorted so much by the needs of the military and imperial bureaucracy. Towns became smaller. But late-Roman Britain also saw larger villas that were by and large economically self-sufficient. This replicated trends on the continent.

Unlike the continent, urban life didn’t survive the end of Roman power. Roman Britain simply imploded, with virtually no help from the newcomers. The picture of rapidly decaying towns is quite haunting;

At Canterbury, the sewers started clogging up around 350, and a thick layer of silt began to form in the city’s baths and on its streets… The ruined and empty city of York…reverted back to marshland in the fifth century… By 420 Britain’s villas had been abandoned. Its towns were mostly empty, its organised industries dead, its connections with the larger Roman world severed: and all with hardly an Angle or Saxon in sight.

As Fleming reveals the decomposition of the old and composition of the new, I found at times that I grew heartily sick of yet another burial description. Yet many of these descriptions were fascinating. Naturally the Sutton Hoo descriptions rank highly. But as I worked my way through, I found that the great strengths of this book slowly revealed themselves. History is more than simply the deeds of great kings and their entourage. We get innumerable glimpses into the lives of women, herders, cheesemakers. These are people who don’t write, and thus are generally invisible in the written historical record.

We see the processes in which emerging royal dynasties invent for themselves genealogies to justify the concentration of economic and political power. It is kings, and the church, that have been the subject of the histories written about this period. But not even all kings, but merely the successful. We also get glimpses of the historically might-have-been-but-didn’t-happen. Archaeological evidence reveals the efforts of the kings of Brycheiniog to maintain their power into the ninth century. The crannog (a settlement build in a lake, common in Ireland) tells us that the kings had the resources and links to hire foreign workers with the expertise needed to build such a settlement, the resources to have it done, and the expectation that their efforts would be successful. Yet by 934 it disappears:

…Alfred the great was not the only extraordinary innovator in ninth-century Britain. Brycheiniog, too, had an extraordinary king, who was as interesting and inventive as Alfred the Great, and yet the Welsh king and his strategies are simply not part of the story. The kingdom and its kings have disappeared from our histories, not for lack of evidence, but because the evidence detailing their history is material, rather than textual, and because of this, historians have simply ignored it.

If you prefer historical narrative, you may find this a bit of a slog. But this is a fascinating example of archaeology revealing the lives of those historical writing usually ignore.

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