Justin Evans's Reviews > The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham
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Jul 14, 10

bookshelves: history-etc
Read in July, 2010

Just to be clear: Chris Wickham does not believe that he can explain anything. He repeats this over and over, so you'll not get the wrong idea. Let's be very, very clear: nothing in history is 'inevitable,' everything is 'contingent,' and we'd be fools to write history with our hindsight. Nope, we should see things as they were seen at the time. Except for women: the political role of women in the early middle ages deserves about 15% of a book covering everything from the production of wheel-thrown pottery to the highest of the high adventures, moral and military.

A historian friend of mine tells me these are the conventional pieties of professional historiography, and that I should just ignore them. But, at least in this book, they're so intrusive that it's impossible to do so. Chris Wickham obviously knows everything: from the tribes of Finland to the early Caliphates, it's all in here. He is, says the Literary Review, "a master of a pointillist narrative style." But if you add his immense knowledge to his pointillist narrative (i.e., = no narrative), you get page after page of fairly dull anecdote, none of which is put into any kind of context. Nothing can be compared to anything else without doing violence to the quidditas of the individual. Local experience is everything. If anyone has suggested the existence of a large scale trend (end of Roman civilization/ various crises/ the coming of feudalism) actually happened, Wickham has fifteen good examples to show why it didn't. This is because he disdains moralism in history (you know, the kind of thing where someone gets all huffy because King Wumba raped his mistress in 6th century Visigothic Spain. Evil Wumba! Well, fair enough). But our author is surely aware that these are not the only two ways to write history (see Maccullough, Diarmid; Judt, Tony et al...) Why doesn't he temper the mind-numbing nominalism (names of people, places and factions from the randomly chosen pp 294-5, excluding the ones most people can actually picture or point to on a map: Jubayr, Kufa, al-Farazdaq, Basra, Amman, al-Malik, Hisham, Sulayman, Gregory, Einhard, Synesios, Marwan, Khurasan, Yadi III, Al-Walid, Yamani, Qaysi, Marwan II, Kharijite, Hashimiyya, Quraysh, 'Ali, 'Abbas, Abu Muslim, Merv) with some comparison or generalization? Presumably because generalization has horns, a spade tipped tail, and makes idle hands its plaything.

After this romanticizing folly, you'll be surprised to find that the final chapter is called 'Trends in European History.' It's 13 pages long. Unless you're riveted by the catalog of ships' names in old epic poems, you might want to skip straight to them in your library copy. If you're looking for information about individuals though, this book is great. Also great are the chapters on Islam and its impact on Europe, parade of names aside. Three cheers for that.
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