Chris Harman


Shedding new light on the Dark Ages

(Winter 2006)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No.109, Winter 2006.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
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Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800
Chris Wickham
Oxford 2005 £85

The period from the 5th to the 11th centuries in Europe has traditionally been treated in Britain as the ‘Dark Ages’ – of little interest. Roman civilisation is seen as disappearing beneath the assault of ‘barbarian invasions’, and nothing significant happens thereafter, except perhaps the efforts of Charlemagne (at the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries) to reunite Western Europe in a shortlived caricature of the Roman Empire.

In recent years academic study has undermined part of this picture, even if this has not filtered down into the popular history of television documentaries or the unpopular history of school syllabuses. Chris Wickham draws together all the new material, particularly that from recent archaeological studies, and sets out to interpret it through a framework influenced in an unashamed manner by Marxism. He presents a picture in which Roman civilisation did not simply disappear with the conquests. The ‘barbarian rulers’ (Goths, Visigoths, Franks and so on) who took control of the different parts of the old empire were from societies that had interacted across its borders for centuries, absorbing and accepting many of its cultural values. They ruled as the Romans had ruled in most places (England was the exception, not the rule), imposing themselves on top of the old aristocracies which they left intact. As a result, the change of rulers did not mean the immediate qualitative transformation of society which the usually emphasised litany of dates for the different invasions suggests.

The break-up of the empire did, however, have important longer term consequences leading to eventual qualitative change. The ‘civilisation’ of the empire had been based upon an aristocracy centred on Rome, and later to an increasing extent on Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), extracting massive amounts of tribute from Sicily, North Africa and Egypt. The break-up of the empire into separate kingdoms, each based on its own version of the old civilisation, ended the flow to Italy from North Africa and Egypt, and then from Sicily. Rome itself ceased to be a focus for the aristocracies of Western Europe and the Mediterranean, and its population fell within a couple of centuries by perhaps half a million to around 20,000.

The effects of disintegration were not confined to the centre. It also reduced trade between the former provinces. Trade in bulky goods (grain or pottery, for instance), Wickham argues, had only ever been profitable when it could use the state-subsidised transport conveying the imperial tribute. Once the tribute stopped, the commerce declined. At the same time, the fragmentation of the empire meant warfare between the former constituents – and further threats from outside the borders. There was a militarisation of the aristocracy and a gradual erosion of its old cultural values.

The impact of the changes, Wickham explains, varied enormously from region to region. The Frankish kingdom (‘Francia’) briefly established over present-day France and southern Germany split into segments. In Spain a central Visigoth monarchy based in Toledo only managed to maintain a weak hold over a regionally fragmented aristocracy through a combination of military threats and patronage. By contrast, a Rome-derived civilisation flourished in most of North Africa for another three centuries, under first the Vandals and then the Umayyad Islamic Empire.

The eastern wing of the old empire (Byzantium) based on Constantinople remained virtually unchanged, continuing to provide for itself with grain from the immensely fertile Nile Valley. It was only with the loss of the southern provinces of Syria and Egypt, first to the Persian Empire and then to Islamic armies from the Arabian Peninsula, that the rump Eastern Empire suffered a decay of urban life. And towns and cities continued to flourish in the regions conquered by the Islamic armies, with the old ruling classes continuing their old lifestyles for another century, until the replacement of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasids shifted the centre of the Islamic Empire from Syria to Iraq and encouraged the conversion of the old elites to Islam.

The disintegration of the Western Empire had the long-term effect of depopulating many of its cities and tarnishing the veneer of civilisation on fragments of what had always been a brutal ruling class, but it was by no means a disaster for the peasants who made up the great bulk of its population. The burden on them of taxation tended to fall (although to different degrees in the different regions), and the weakening of the state lessened the capacity of the aristocracy to enforce the extraction of rents from them. Although there were regions where forms of serfdom prevailed, in others freeholding peasants (‘allodists’) were in the majority. Meanwhile, in the regions which had never been conquered by Rome or where the old state had disintegrated completely (England and Wales, for instance) there were forms of ‘tribal organisation’ (Wickham uses the term to make a comparison with more recent pre-state societies studied by anthropologists), where high status individuals and families might exist, gathering a surplus into their hands to redistribute to the population at large, but not an exploiting ruling class.

The two sorts of societies tended to converge over time, with the ‘tribal’ societies witnessing the slow crystallisation out of new aristocracies and with them new state structures. In this they were influenced by the impact of contact with the successor states – and with the network of Christian religious institutions that increasingly provided the rulers of Western Europe with their administrative personnel and a single ideological framework. By the 8th century the wealth of these rulers laid the basis of a new long distance trade in luxury items and the growth of new trading towns, ‘emporia’, alongside the depleted administrative cities left over from the old empire.

What was the character of the post-Roman class societies? Wickham writes of ‘the feudal mode of production’, thereby confronting a number of long debated theoretical issues.

First he disentangles the feudal mode of production from the specific pattern of aristocratic rule in Europe from the 11th to the 16th centuries, with its hierarchies of kings, lords, abbots and knights, and so on. The mode of production, he says, depends on the way the direct producers are exploited. And there are only three forms this can take – the exploitation of slaves, the exploitation of waged (‘free’) workers, and the exploitation of dependent peasants forced to hand over a portion of their produce to their exploiters.

This leads him to break with a common view (which he himself used to hold) [1] that there is a different mode of production if the ruling class receives revenues from taxing the peasants as opposed to extracting rents – one an ‘Asiatic’ or ‘tributary’ mode of production, the other the feudal mode.

He accepts the argument of the Turkish Marxist Halil Berktay that the differences in the superstructural relations between members of the ruling class cannot be equated with differences in the mode of production. [2] In passing, it should be said that the empirical material he provides shows that the post-empire aristocracies depended on taxes and rents to varying degrees in different places and at different times. To say that taxes meant one mode of production and rents a different one would be to say there was a continual swinging in relatively short periods of time from one mode of production to the other and back again. [3]

His material also leads him to confront two other popular views. One is that medieval feudalism emerged as a fully formed system out of the villas of the Roman Empire as aristocrats settled peasants on their land as ‘colloni’ under their control. He shows that, although the colloni existed, in many regions they were a minority among free ‘allodial’ peasants. It was not until half a millennium after the collapse of the empire that feudal exploitation became so widespread as to be near-universal. There was no simple continuity between what existed in the 5th and the 11th centuries.

Secondly, he challenges forcefully the notion that the ‘slave mode of production’ survived right through until the 11th century. Slavery persisted as a category denying people a range of legal rights, but he argues that the slaves were, in the great majority of cases, exploited in the same way as other sections of dependent peasants, even if to a greater extent. They were settled on plots of their own or working in the households of others who were settled on such plots. ‘Plantation slavery’, a completely different way of organising exploitation in which the toilers were compelled to work by the overseer’s whip, had, he argues, virtually died out in the early centuries of the empire.

Wickham’s book is historical analysis in which class plays a central role. It is not meant to be a full account of the societies of the period. The ‘framing’ deliberately omits any detailed account of the cultural and intellectual changes which occurred (for these, readers would do well to look at the excellent books by Peter Brown The World of Late Antiquity and The Rise of Western Christendom).

There is, however, one problem with the ‘framing’. There is little in the book about the actual process of physical production – the means the peasants used as they toiled to produce the wealth that kept the state, the aristocracy, the warrior bands and the religious hierarchies going. As a result it is not clear why the surplus and aristocratic wealth starts rising in the 8th century, or why the classes begin to crystallise out in the peripheral regions.

Wickham stresses the importance of exchange networks, but as John Moreland has argued (in a book co-edited by Wickham), the exchange networks were underpinned by changes in production in the towns around which they were built. [4] And there is considerable evidence that by the 8th and 9th centuries there was the gradual adoption in agriculture of new techniques, some known but rarely used in the Roman period, others spreading westwards across Eurasia. An examination of these would seem to be a precondition for providing an understanding of the dynamic of history in this period that goes beyond simple description.

The overall result is that the book undermines some of the evidence used by older attempts to provide a dynamic understanding, for instance Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. But it does not succeed in producing a new, fully dynamic account of its own.

The merit of this book is that it is an invaluable source of raw material, based on a vast range of primary and secondary sources. This does, however, mean that it is very long – 831 pages. General readers may want to wait for Wickham to complete his promised volume for the Penguin History of Europe series.


1. See his contribution to the debate on the issue in H. Mukhia (ed.), The Feudalism Debate (New Delhi 1999).

2. Also in H. Mukhia (ed.), as above.

3. It is the same distinction I made in reviewing Guy Bois, The Transformation of the Year 1000, in this journal some years back (see International Socialism 62, Spring 1994).

4. J. Moreland, The Significance of Production in 8th Century England, in I.L. Hansen and C. Wickham (eds.), The Long 8th Century (Dill, 2000), pp.69-75.

Last updated on 13 January 2010