Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered
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Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered

3.34 of 5 stars 3.34  ·  rating details  ·  213 ratings  ·  55 reviews
A rich and surprising look at the robust European culture that thrived after the collapse of Rome.

The barbarians who destroyed the glory that was Rome demolished civilization along with it, and for the next four centuries the peasants and artisans of Europe barely held on. Random violence, mass migration, disease, and starvation were the only ways of life. This is the pic...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published August 24th 2009 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published July 14th 2008)
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Terence
Oct 28, 2009 Terence rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Terence by: New shelf @ library
I would describe this book as a professor's collection of undergraduate-level lectures about the Dark Ages - which, as he correctly points out, weren't quite as "dark" as the general public might think. Of course, John & Jane Q. Public don't often consider the Dark Ages except when they're watching scurrilous TV shows or movies, and then, do they care?

Probably not.

Among the cognoscenti of amateur and professional Late Antiquity/Early Medieval historians, Wells is not exactly breaking new gro...more
Rindis
Peter S. Wells' book is a look at the Dark Ages in the 'cultural continuity' tradition that started in the 1970s. It is mostly aimed at dispelling the extremely bleak view of post-Roman history taken by the early Humanists to Gibbon and through most of the twentieth century.

And it's a certainty that things weren't as bad as the traditional view represented them. However, the arguments presented that the post-Roman world continued without major disruptions are often nebulous, ill-supported, and l...more
Dan
If you enjoyed either of Peter Wells’ prior books, The Barbarians Speak or The Battle that Stopped Rome, then his latest work will be a delight. If you haven’t read any of Wells’ books, I highly recommend them, but especially Barbarians to Angels. I discovered the book in the midst of researching the Migration Era and after having encountered Walter Goffart’s critique of current scholarship about both the end of the Roman Empire and the “German-ness” of the barbarians who both attacked and defen...more
Полиграф
What an absurd book.
After rapid growth in the latter part of the first century, London emerged as a stunning center of the Roman Empire on its northern edge, with monumental architecture, a thriving commercial center, and a military base characteristic of the greatest of Roman cities. The third and fourth centuries at London are marked by a stoppage in the major architecture and a reverse of that process, the dismantling of major stone monuments, at the same time that much of the formerly urban
...more
Tanya
"Barbarians to Angels" uses archaeological evidence - largely from burials - to fill in gaps left by written sources about the "dark ages," from the 5th to 8th centuries. Because the contemporary writers were elites from the Roman tradition, they focused on the fall of the Roman empire and what they saw as decline of civilization. Wells points out that these centuries were actually full of a re-establishment of local architecture and personal art, and a strong continuation of long-distance trade...more
Mary Catelli
The Dark Ages -- not the entire Middle Ages that used to be called the Dark Ages, just the era that gets called the Dark Ages now -- as viewed by the eye of archeology.

Let us say that it looks kinda different to them.


For one thing, all the stories about invading barbarian hordes are -- overstated. Archaeological evidence does not point to many people moving during the time. The artifacts in locations said to be invaded, like England, did not change, and the skeletons' teeth can apparently be ana...more
James
I read this book, somewhat coincidentally, just after The Swerve. It’s another book I wish went further than it did. Like a few other recent works on the early Medieval period, it’s setting up an argument against the unsubtle view that after the Western Roman Empire fell, everything went completely to hell in a handbasket and there wasn’t any real progress again until the Renaissance. Well, that’s an unsubtle view (and tends to ignore anything happening elsewhere in the world), and Wells argues...more
Steve Bivans
As the defender of barbarian complexity and contribution, Peter Wells stakes a claim in the larger debate on the nature of the Fall of Rome, and with some interesting modifications, comes down on the side of continuity and gradual transition. Barbarians to Angels continues the basic thesis of his The Barbarians Speak; simply put, that the barbarians possessed a complex society of their own. While adapting to Roman culture, and integrating and modifying Roman institutions of government, they reta...more
Max
First and foremost a study on the society during the so-called Dark Ages, this book takes about 200 pages to prove the thesis that society did not collapse into Dark Matter after the end of the Roman Empire.

Yes, this was interesting. No, not much sticked.

PW does not attempt to captivate, that is for sure. Long sections with archaeological evidence, detailing all items found in graves, are not my cup of tea. I did like the fact that I'd visited several of the sites mentioned, I will also include...more
Max Carmichael
This little academic summary is not a particularly lively read, but it joins a few other recent histories in a gradual paradigm shift about the human experience that I find hugely enlightening.

The history that we've been taught, and the history that will continue to be disseminated in mainstream media, is nothing but propaganda for the society of the elites. As this book shows, our dystopian paradigm of the collapse of civilization is largely a myth; empires are inherently oppressive, nations an...more
Lucas
To start off, I think that Well's thesis is correct. Much of the cultural baggage attached to the term "Dark Ages" is Enlightenment Romanophilism and that picture deserves thorough revision (which has been done in the academic sphere with major works like Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800]]). Unfortunately, Wells' attempt to bring such research the popular sphere falls rather flat due to poor argumentation and highly questionable use of evidence. Alt...more
Sara
Peter Wells deftly tackles the bizarrely persistent idea that the early Middle Ages (c. 400 to 800 AD) were, as the old moniker would have it, actually "dark". Crucially, Wells' research is based on archaeological evidence rather than textual evidence.

The primary literate document producers of this 400-year period, namely clerics, subscribed to the late Roman Empire's school of thought regarding what makes "culture" and "civilization". According to these criteria - which are much like our own:...more
Louise
Due to the lack of a written record, it has been assumed that the decline in Roman civilization meant a cultural descent. One result is that the name the "Dark Ages" was given to this period with very little understanding of what happened in them.

With photos and drawings showing unearthed artifacts and maps showing the wide dispersion of where they have been found, Wells makes the case for a lively culture with active trade in this period. Most striking to me was the minimal evidence of war in t...more
Alex Telander
BARBARIANS TO ANGELS: THE DARK AGES RECONSIDERED BY PETER S. WELLS: Peter S. Wells, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The Battle That Shaped Rome and Barbarians Speak, takes on a bold new subject as he attempts to prove that the so called “Dark Ages” really weren’t that bad at all, but were a time for important trading, the long-term migration of different peoples, and that most of what we consider to know about the period from the fall of Rome in approximat...more
Karen Floyd
Finally! Someone who believes the "Dark Ages" weren't dark after all.
The author takes a frsh look at the so-called Dark Ages from the perspective of archeological evidence and reminds us that the few written sources we have are written from a particular point of view, mostly Roman, and then mostly Christian. The physical evidence shows that the years between AD 300 and AD 800 were prosperous ones, with many new trade centers appearing all over Northern Europe. And the invention of the moldboard...more
Joyce
University of Minnesota archaeologist Peter Wells, a specialist on Roman and post-Roman history, turns his attention away from Roman civilization and onto northern European tribes long dismissed as ignorant barbarians for causing the "Fall of Rome." Wells presents a solid argument, based on material evidence, for considering northern Europeans, i.e., the Franks, Celts, Saxons, Goths et al., not as illiterate hordes, but as indigenous cultures whose trade, industry, agriculture, art and education...more
David R.
Wells' objective, and I worthy one, I think, is to demonstrate that the so-called "Dark Ages" (ca. 400-800 C.E.) were not so dark after all. That is, that European polities were more dynamic, prosperous, and vital than has been imagined in recent centuries. In support of his thesis he musters a mix of source literature, archaeological discoveries, and deduction. Unfortunately the end product doesn't quite get there. The evidence is not well documented and various supporting points do not truly s...more
Siggie
The author makes the point that just because there is very little written in the period 400 to 800 AD that has survived (or been found) it doesn't necessarily follow that this period was a "Dark" period of stagnation, violence, chaos and starvation as we think. Charlemagne's Empire and the Carolingian Renaissance of the late 8th and 9th centuries could not have sprung to life out of nothing. He goes to archaeological evidence to show that this 400 year period was rich in developments in trade, a...more
Relstuart
A little dry. Not written for the causal read. Discusses why people think of the middle ages as the dark ages and why that view is influenced by the Roman writers in their days of waning power and influence and the influence of Gibbon's classic work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

However, Europe was expanding in many other ways as trade and learning flourished in parts of Europe that were not Roman. Many of these elements of society that flourished do have surviving written records w...more
Emily
There wasn't much that I hadn't heard before in this book, but I've taken several history courses since it was published. It was still an enjoyable read, clear and concise, and I would definitely recommend it as an introduction into medieval studies.
Hester
What a tease! I have always been confused about the Dark Ages and have struggled to find books that would tell me about them. Who exactly were the Merovingians? What were the northern Europeans like? What was their religion? Did it involve bison, like in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic books?
This book uses archaeology to begin to answer these questions, but frustrates me by not going all the way. Why did they throw swords into rivers? What did it mean? How are Christmas trees related to old...more
Andrea Dowd
This is just a small portrait of Europe during the Dark Ages. It's written by a professor of the University of Minnesota and I would recommend that anyone interested in histroy or in early cultures in Europe read this book first before getting into huge tomes. It was a little too simplistic for my tastes, but I think that had more to do with the fact that I already knew a lot of what was in the book.

Overall, the writing was good and the scope of topics (religion to construction) was encompassing...more
Paul
A great little book that systematically re-reviews the so-called Dark Ages, the time immediately after the decline of the Roman Empire, approximately 400-800 AD. Because few writers of the time valued anything but the Roman Empire, histories have till now only reflected their view, which was basically that the world went to hell until the time of Charlemagne. Archeological evidence paints a far different picture, one of continuity and a quiet flourishing of new centers of commerce, culture, and...more
Stacy
Well-written and accessible exploration of the so-called "Dark Ages", drawing on archaeological evidence to present a new perspective on the era.
Melisa
I really enjoyed this book. It had an excellent combination of historical and archeaological examples for redefining the "Dark Ages".
Geoff
Fascinating subject, but really poorly written. Little sense of flow and a lot of cataloging of overwhelming archeological findings.
Andrew
I finished this book a few weeks ago and enjoyed it, but felt like I had to slog through the final few chapters. This is fairly normal for me in historical books as it can be difficult to engage the reader with a unique character or situation.

I think this work achieves it's maximum value as a reference book and an eye opening look at what the Dark Ages were really like. If you are looking for summer reading just for entertainment's value, this probably isn't the book for you.

Still, it seems to...more
Alex
This is more of an academic dissertation than a commercial history book, so it's more dry and repetitive than the best stuff in the field. It has a lot of interesting material, but Wells is (rightfully) more interested in creating a solid, well-supported thesis than in sustaining a narrative throughline. So the book eventually becomes a long list of items found in different places around Western and Northern Europe which indicate that the Dark Ages were not "dark," merely different in civilized...more
Dallas
If you are looking for history of the period 400-800 CE, you will likely be disappointed in this work, as I was. It is solely archaeological in content with minimal historical context. Having said that, it has some very interesting bits, especially the chapter on post-Roman London, but overall it tends to simply be an accumulation of archaeological details with little narrative context or expanded interpretation. I would recommend it as a decent work for certain information and bibliographic sou...more
Bill
A minimalist survey of Europe's post-Roman era, intended to demonstrate that it wasn't a dark age, or a decline in culture, but was rather an age of change and of equal accomplishment as that which came before. Sadly, it is at once too short and too long: too short, in that it does not gather nearly enough evidence to make its case; too long, in that this short book contains far too much padding and repetition. There might be a case to be made that things weren't worse, but only different, as Ro...more
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