On words

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Reading The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization made me a bit more curious about ‘the Dark Ages.’ So with that in mind I picked up Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000. One page 29:

If we take a long-term perspective, however, it is clear that inherited Roman bureaucracy did not endure. To assert that it decayed would be to adapt and inappropriate narrative of ‘decline and fall.’ Rather, its constituent elements-documentary forms, legal norms, tax accounting, judicial and archival procedures, and so on-disaggregated and thinned out. In places-but only in some places-fragments of the once-coherent bureaucratic regime then perished. Other fragments took on a new life. Men of property freed slaves, negotiated marriage contracts, endowed churches, and arranged their testamentary bequests in formal documents….

What does decline and fall mean if not the collapse of the social order? Well, it means many things. As Daniel Larison contended in response to my previous post there was a problematic attitude amongst the older generation of classicists to idealize and world of Greece and Rome, as if nothing of greatness occurred between 476 and the Renaissance (an attitude that came to the fore, not surprisingly, during the Renaissance). So you have peculiar situations where authors can report an unending sequence of facts which suggest an epoch of relative material scarcity and decreased social complexity who just won’t admit that judged by these metrics there was a downsizing.

Update: Daniel Larison has a response. Let me be clear about one thing: I do not prefer diplomatic or institutional history. Nor do I shun it. But, I am curious as someone who wants to get the richest, most multi-dimensional, perception of the past, how the “small folk” lived.

Labels:

13 Comments

  1. Everything I know tells me that there was a real Dark Ages between about 550 AD and 800 AD. There may have been areas of progress, but cultural production fell to almost nothing, literacy declined, trade declined, long distance travel became rare and dangerous (it had been routine under the empire) and both population and economic productivity declined. One piece of evidence evidence for this is a look at the revivals around 800 AD by Alfred the Great and Charlemagne. After the revivals, Western Europe still was not at all impressive. 
     
    Things started to pick up about 800 AD, and there’s some point well before the Renaissance at which it makes sense to say that Western Europe had completely recovered. But 550-800 or 550-1000 was pretty bad. 
     
    At one point I got everything I could find that survives from the 550-800 period in Western Europe: Paul the Deacon, Gildas, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Jordanes, and a few more. It was really weak, derivative stuff of purely historical interest. The one thing from that period which remains readable is “Beowulf”, but that was a slightly-refurbished survival from an earlier age.

  2. I’m not sure how this fits into your discussion but I think that it might be important to add a little more to whoat one might mean by ‘decline’. 
     
    I remember a while back Razib did some sort of post asserting the ‘romanitas’ of the Roman senatorial class in late Antiquity. I think that saying the Roman Senatorial class of late Antiquity possessed the qualities of ‘romanitas’ is a mistake. Late Antiquity, especially in the West was the age of the latifundia, huge estates run by slave labor with a the Roman Senatorial class at the top. There are more than a few ‘saint stories’ about the conversions of members of this class that list an inventory of the property that the saint, who was an unremarkable member of the senatorial class, donated to the church and these inventories are quite huge and are equal and possibly greater to a medieval royal demesne. 
     
    Which brings one to the ‘decline and fall’ stuff, in which ‘decline’ is not the same as the ‘fall’. The ‘old Roman’ concept of ‘romanitas’ was intertwined with the Roman idea of ‘virtue’, which comes from the word ‘vir’ which sort of means man among men. The idea was that a man with ‘virtue’ was quite indomitable and effective because he had something far more valuable than gold or property deeds, he had the personal qualities, and a man without virtue, even if he had gold and property wasn’t going to be able keep his stuff anyway. A man without property but who had virtue was a richer man than one without virtue but had money. 
     
    Cato the Elder would have despised the senatorial class of late antiquity for reasons given above, they were certainly not men who could have created the Roman Empire from scratch like Cato and his bunch did, they were already ‘living amidst the ruins’ of a civilization made by better men than they, and the ‘material’ part was just a lagging indicator. 
     
    Gibbon says Christianity is responsible for this as if the Roman Senatorial class would have been a bunch of Catos and Scipios without it and I think Gibbon is all wet about this. 
     
    Getting back to the Dark Ages, yes they were dark, but I think most comparisons of them with Late Antiquity give Late Antiquity more credit than it deserves.

  3. Late Antiquity, especially in the West was the age of the latifundia, huge estates run by slave labor with a the Roman Senatorial class at the top. 
     
    this was disproportionately true of sicily & africa. but, i think one should be cautious of characterizing an age by a disproportionate, since the majority of roman citizens were neither slaves and (from what i know) the majority of agricultural economic production were not from latifundia. 
     
    The ‘old Roman’ concept of ‘romanitas’ was intertwined with the Roman idea of ‘virtue’, which comes from the word ‘vir’ which sort of means man among men. The idea was that a man with ‘virtue’ was quite indomitable and effective because he had something far more valuable than gold or property deeds, he had the personal qualities, and a man without virtue, even if he had gold and property wasn’t going to be able keep his stuff anyway. A man without property but who had virtue was a richer man than one without virtue but had money. 
     
    two things. honor was probably more important than virtue. but, men of good blood, good character and good learning, could still be accepted amongst the senatorial elite despite their poverty (we see symmachus arging for this in the case of some in his letters). this points to ineffable virtues. 
     
     
    Cato the Elder would have despised the senatorial class of late antiquity for reasons given above, they were certainly not men who could have created the Roman Empire from scratch like Cato and his bunch did, they were already ‘living amidst the ruins’ of a civilization made by better men than they, and the ‘material’ part was just a lagging indicator.
     
     
    if cato the elder is your judge of romanitas then that passed with sulla during the 1st century BCE! no, by romanitas i mean that the curial class of the antonine period would have recognized the culture and manners of the elite of the late 4th century. 
     
     
    Gibbon says Christianity is responsible for this as if the Roman Senatorial class would have been a bunch of Catos and Scipios without it and I think Gibbon is all wet about this. 
     
     
    yes. i would say in general religions are a reflection of the nature of the age, not the cause of that nature.

  4. I remember being struck by a remark of a historian of Dark Age Britain. Not only are the archaeological finds – British and Anglo-Saxon – feeble stuff compared to those of Roman Britain, they are feeble stuff compared to pre-Roman Britain. “Feeble”, that is to say, both in quantity and quality.

  5. feeble stuff compared to those of Roman Britain, they are feeble stuff compared to pre-Roman Britain. “Feeble”, that is to say, both in quantity and quality. 
     
    *nod* i’m only at the beginning of Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000, but the chapter on literacy was in some ways redolent of the nature of the craft during the bronze age. e.g., writing serves primarily utilitarian ends like tracking and recording economic production and transaction. though, england is probably the most extreme case of the ‘dark age’ scenario. roman culture was totally wiped out in all its forms (e.g., language, religion, architecture).

  6. I sort of agree that my Cato the Elder reference might not be perfect, Sulla, Marius, Pompey and Caesar and guys like that would have been recogizable by him as lacking virtue by not submitting to the Senate and for conducting politics via proscription, but he would not have despised them for their lack of ability for donning armor and personally leading Rome’s legions. Every Senator was a potential military commander, one couldn’t get in just for one’s ‘culturedness’. Roman senators were not Chinese Mandarins. There’s a maxim of Napoleon’s that goes “There are men fit for translating poems who are unfit for leading 14 men on the battlefield.” Cato would have gotten what he was talking about. 
     
    Cato also would have admired someone who built the aqueduct that made the baths possible instead of someone who took baths and discussed philosophy in them but couldn’t get an aqueduct built. One had to be the sort of man whom construction workers and centurions, usually the same sort of people, would like to take orders from and respect. 
     
    I’m not quite sure about latifundia, but I think they were huge in Spain, Italy and southern Gaul too. I just checked Wikipedia, which for what it’s worth says so too. A rich Roman Senator could own such estates in all these regions simultaneously and could go through life without visiting most of them or personally supervising them, while concentrating on being ‘cultured’. 
     
    This part goes along with the late Roman practice of relying on barbarian mercenaries not just for the rank and file, but for the officers and commanders too. Filling the upper ranks of the legions was how one got to be a Senator earlier on. 
     
    I suppose replacing ‘virtue’ with ‘honor’ in the whole honestes versus humiliores distinction, medieval ‘honor’ is more Roman virtue in this way, is kind of the point. Marius was quite uncultured but he wiped out a Germanic horde, so he becomes a Senator. A late Empire Senator becomes a Senator because he’s rich or cultured and then negotiates with the barbarian and maybe gives him a job, doing the earlier Senator’s work of commanding the legions. A country that does this is already on it’s last legs, it’s just a matter of time until it goes down.

  7. I reckon it’s fair to say that Roman civilization fell in many parts of the Western Empire, but lived on in the Eastern or Byzantine Empire – and some important Intellectual Refugia – like Ireland – to spring forth again, and recolonize the minds of Europeans, once conditions were favorable.

  8. Of course one could argue that the Irish hastened or caused the end of the Roman period – as it was Irish monasteries who first encouraged the use of writing in the vernacular, as opposed to writing in Latin, and why not, these Irish monks were the multilinguists of their day, writing and speaking Gaelic, Latin and Greek fluently – but for the purposes of converting/civilizing their “barbarian” cousins, felt that addressing them in their vernacular was the most parsimonious way to go.

  9. I’m not quite sure about latifundia, but I think they were huge in Spain, Italy and southern Gaul too. I just checked Wikipedia, which for what it’s worth says so too. A rich Roman Senator could own such estates in all these regions simultaneously and could go through life without visiting most of them or personally supervising them, while concentrating on being ‘cultured’. 
     
    i did not say they were not widespread, what you say is correct. i said they do not represent the majority experience of agriculture in the late roman empire (just as the majority of humans were not bonded/chattel slaves). even the rome of cato the elder was one of gross inequities of wealth, absentee landlordism is not a peculiar feature of the late empire. 
     
     
    This part goes along with the late Roman practice of relying on barbarian mercenaries not just for the rank and file, but for the officers and commanders too. Filling the upper ranks of the legions was how one got to be a Senator earlier on.
     
     
    this is time sensitive. 325 was a different world from 425. also, some ‘barbarians’ such as stilicho were quite cultured (born of a roman mother even). it seems that the last 25 years of the 4th century was the one where the empire truly made the transition toward barbarians dominated the military orders. oh, and as for how one became a senator in the 4th century in the west, military or bureaucratic elevation occurred, but the civilian old aristocracy was still dominant. see The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire by Michele Renee Salzman for a detailed quantitative analysis of this. 
     
    Marius was quite uncultured but he wiped out a Germanic horde, so he becomes a Senator. A late Empire Senator becomes a Senator because he’s rich or cultured and then negotiates with the barbarian and maybe gives him a job, doing the earlier Senator’s work of commanding the legions. A country that does this is already on it’s last legs, it’s just a matter of time until it goes down. 
     
    just to reiterate, the full transition to the barbarian generals occurs in the 5th century, not the 4th. in fact, generals who spoke with a non-elite latin accent were still ridiculed in the 4th century.

  10. as it was Irish monasteries who first encouraged the use of writing in the vernacular, as opposed to writing in Latin, and why not, these Irish monks were the multilinguists of their day, writing and speaking Gaelic, Latin and Greek fluently – but for the purposes of converting/civilizing their “barbarian” cousins, felt that addressing them in their vernacular was the most parsimonious way to go. 
     
    a minor point, the author above suggests that it was in ireland where latin was turned into a sacred language of religion amongst non-latinate speakers in western christendom. this surprised me. the point is that the irish did have a rich vernacular tradition, but unlike the eastern churches they began the trend of sealing away the religious language from the non-religious language amongst the various non-romance speaking peoples of northern europe. e.g., we don’t know too much about the arian faith of the goths, but it seems likely that in their churches in western europe they used gothic. ulfilas had translated much of the bible into their language in the 4th century n the east.

  11. Monks operating in Ireland used Hiberno-Latin, which was classical Latin with the addition of many loan words from Greek, Gaelic and Hebrew – the latter was also understood to some extent in Ireland at the time. 
     
    I would speculate that had they not decided to translate into the vulgate, and later had the Cistercians ban the teaching of all children from age 7 – in favor of teaching adults to become monks – Ireland might have developed Biberno-latin into another Romance language…

  12. Being an artsy kind of guy, I would note that between Augustine and Chrysostom in the 400s and A.D. 1000, there was essentially no major literature as literature. After 1000 things started to pick up a bit with the troubadours, the Arthurian poems and stories, and national epics like The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, and The Song of the Nibelungs etc. Still, it took until Dante in the 1200s and his followers, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer, for a full recovery to be made. I wouldn’t say go so far as to say that there was nothing good written between 500 and 1000 A.D.: there’s Beowulf, some Irish stuff. I’m sure Larison could come up with some good minor poets writing in Greek. But there was definitely a lull in quality literary production.

  13. Surely Beowulf is a remnant of a much larger literature – after all, it survived in a single, half-burnt manuscript. And what’s this talk about Louis the Pious burning loads of Germanic literature that had been collected during the Carolingian renaissance?

a